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Life of Dante

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and belonged to the noble but impoverished Alighieri family. He was betrothed at the age of twelve to Gemma Donati whom he subsequently married in the mid 1280’s . She bore him five children. In his late teens he began writing poems in Italian instead of the customary Latin. This was a bold step representing a new outlook on the potential of Italian prose and became a turning point for European poetry. According to the custom of the time, he sent his work to poets who were already established, requesting them to reply in kind. In this way he became acquainted with some of the best known poets in Florence.

Admission into the recognised circle came when he circulated a sonnet describing a dream (the first poem in the Vita Nuova).

He continued to experiment within the conventional love themes inherited from the Provencal and Sicilian traditions: the torment of unrequited love, the need to keep secret the name of the beloved, the device of the screen love to deceive the inquisitive, misunderstandings with the beloved, intolerable ecstasy in her presence and anguished mortification at her mockery.

His great innovative contribution was to gradually introduce directly felt observational experiences of reality into the stylised tradition. This was a reflection of the growing state of increased awareness developing in Italy during this foreshadowing period of the early Renaissance or ‘rebirth’ of classical knowledge and was prevalent among the Florentine elite.

They pioneered a new attitude towards human beings, seeing them as people who had suddenly acquired a new consciousness of their own uniqueness and individuality.

Much of Dante’s thinking was influenced by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. There was a growing interest in Greek and Roman antiquity and Dante’s most important literary models were Virgil’s epic poem, the Aenid, and the Vulgate, or Latin Bible.

In Vita Nuova he recalls the personal experiences, thoughts and feelings from which he created his compositions and converts the whole work into a treatise on the art of poetry. In his intellectually disciplined works, Dante articulated his thoughts into metrical form and harmoniously ordered words which lie in complete contrast to the extremes of emotional intensity inherent in the content of the work.

In Dante’s poetry the whole narrative is carried forward by the interlocking rhymes of TERZA RIMA which is structured so that the first and third lines of a three line stanza rhyme with the second line of the one preceding. It flows beautifully in the original Italian and inevitably loses in translation. Poetry is basically a technology of the sounds of language, and one set of sounds is not another. It is essentially untranslatable but it is possible to turn it imaginatively from an original work of art to another derived work of art, meant to give pleasure and an idea of the original in the new language.

No one who undertakes to translate the poetry of Dante can hope to do more than inspire a wish to read the original.

Questi fu tal nella vita nova,
Virtualmente, ch’ogni abito destro
Fatto averebbe in lui mirabil prova.

This man was such in his new life,
Potentially, that every good endowment
Might have shown a wondrous result in him

Purgatorio, Canto XXX, 115-117

La Vita Nuova

La Vita Nuova takes its name from the first book written by Dante in 1290. The work is dedicated to the memory of Beatrice with whom Dante had been deeply in love since they first met in childhood. It consists of a number of poems combined with his own prose commentary. The literal English translation of Vita Nuova is ‘New Life’. In classical Latin ‘novus’ also meant ‘first’. It could also mean ‘wonderful’ or ‘marvellous’.

The name was chosen because it continued the classical theme started by Rob Pike when he coined the name ‘Inferno’ for Lucents latest network operating system. Apparently, Rob was reading ‘The Divine Comedy’ when the early work was being done on Inferno. Many of the components of Inferno were taken from this work, including Limbo, Dis and Styx.

If the Vita Nuova consisted only of the poems, they would lose nothing of their beauty, but our understanding and appreciation of them are greatly heightened by what Dante has chosen to tell us of the reality behind them. That reality is both external, relating to events, and internal, relating to emotion and imagination. Part of the originality of the work rests in the intimate and personal way in which he traces the relationship between his experience and his poetry. The experience which went into the making of the poems of the Vita Nuova is narrated in the prose. It is not all objective experience and it has, of course, undergone imaginative and symbolic change.

Dante fell deeply in love with Beatrice at first sight when they were children at the age of nine. Nine years later, he met her again and she spoke a pleasant word of greeting to him. He was completely overwhelmed by the experience and during that same night he had a dream which inspired him to write a poem (this is poem number three in Vita Nuova ). He developed lovesickness and pined for her, becoming pale and weak. His friends were teasing him and trying to find out who was at the source of his affections. One day while among the congregation in church, he placed himself in a position where he could gaze at Beatrice, but another, very attractive woman got between them in his line of vision and his friends made the mistake of thinking that this was the woman he loved.

He had the idea of using this woman as a ‘screen love’ to draw attention away from his real love. He overdid the pretence and people talked about it ‘beyond the bounds of decency’ saying he had shown the lady some discourtesy. When he next encountered Beatrice she snubbed him. He became very depressed and following a visitation from the personification of love, he wrote a long poem about the confusion he was suffering. He was later invited to a wedding and encountered Beatrice at the reception, virtually collapsing at the sight of her; much to the amusement of the other women present, who mocked him in front of her. He then spent a long time composing poetry trying to analyse the nature of love and explain the emotions he was experiencing. Shortly afterwards, Beatrice died suddenly. He became very ill, and lay like someone paralysed. On the ninth day of unendurable pain he became delirious and his imagination conjured up strange visions. He was first tormented by fantasies but saw an illusion of the body of Beatrice lying dead with an expression of complete peacefulness on her face. In his dream he was filled with such serenity and wished for his own death so that he might join her. When he had recovered from this illness he wrote a long poem about it. Some time later as he was sitting thoughtfully by himself one day in Florence, he felt a tremor in his heart as though Beatrice was near him. As he looked up he saw coming towards him, Beatrice’s closest friend, Giovanna who because of her beauty was nicknamed PRIMAVERA, that is, Spring. The name Primavera means that she will come first (prima verra`). Dante ‘saw’ Beatrice walking behind her and he imagined her in heavenly glory which greatly comforted him.

On the first anniversary of her death, he was affected deeply by thoughts of her in heaven and a vivid impression of her in glory appeared before his eyes subsequently causing him to suffer terrible remorse. He writes a poem in which he describes his thoughts as a sigh going out as a pilgrim ‘beyond the widest of the circling spheres’, into the realms of a new celestial influence where he ‘beholds a soul in glory’ and words cannot explain what is in his heart.

At this point there appears to him a marvellous vision in which he saw things which made him resolve not to write any more until he could do so more worthily. He spent the rest of his life writing the Divine Comedy and died in Ravenna in 1321 shortly after it was completed.

The Divine Comedy

More than any other major European poem, the Divine Comedy is a detailed commentary on the political, economic and social developments of its author’s times. In material terms, the thirteenth century was the most prosperous Europe had known since the fall of the Roman Empire. There was a great increase of wealth and trade, and in particular a rapid growth in towns and cities. Chief among the Italian city states was Florence.

These city states were proud, independent entities whose banking and trading activities were among the most sophisticated in Europe. By 1301, when Dante was forced into exile, Florence was one of the largest and most important cities in Europe, equal in size and importance to Paris, with a population of 100,000 and financial and commercial interests that extended as far as England and Constantinople.

All over Europe the conflict between the popes and the emperors had split local communities and Florence was no exception. Supporters of the popes were known as Guelfs and those of the emperors Ghibellines. The Guelfs were subdivided into White Guelfs and Black Guelfs and there was a bitter hostile rivalry between them which culminated in bloody riots in 1300 . Dante was elected as a representative of the White Guelfs and being desirous of moderation and reconciliation went as a member of a delegation to appeal to the pope. Unfortunately for Dante the pope had secretly connived to send an army to help the Black Guelfs in their violent coup d’etat, during which the leading White Guelfs were killed or driven from Florence and had their property confiscated or destroyed. Dante was accused and tried in absentia on trumped up charges of forgery, embezzlement, and opposition to the pope; when he did not respond, he was, in subsequent proclamations, stripped of his property and condemned, if captured, to be burnt at the stake.

By the time of his exile Dante was known as a poet and intellectual of some distinction. In the years following his exile his movements are difficult to trace but he continued to write poems. Thus most of his work was written in exile, a fact to which most of them allude. In Ravenna, as a guest of Guido da Polenta he enjoyed considerable status and gathered around him a coterie of disciples; he was joined there by two sons and his daughter Antonia who became a nun, adopting the name of Beatrice.

The divine Comedy is an intricately planned, rigorously symmetrical narrative poem. It tells of the poets descent into Hell (the Inferno), and how he passes through the centre of the world, and ascends Mount Purgatory (the Purgatoria). From Mount Purgatoria he proceeds to Heaven itself into the presence of God. The whole poem is an elaborate allegory, in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically, describing the final union of the individual human will with the Universal will which he believed presides over the whole of creation. Dante’s great autobiographical work is a journey through himself in which he incorporates legendary personages as well as contemporaries who he would have known when they were alive. In a remarkable creative leap he represents this as a journey through the whole cosmos, incorporating along the way some of the most extraordinary imagery .This has been a source of wonder and inspiration to artists, writers and musicians for the past 700 years.

No less astonishing, is the underlying mathematical structure based on the number three, to correspond with the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). The three sections are each divided into thirty three cantos with one introductory canto, totaling one hundred (the square route being ten, regarded as the perfect number). Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso are all arranged in three different levels with nine circles each.

The journey takes three days, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday and as mentioned previously, the poem is written entirely in three line interlocking stanzas.

Dante explains something of this in Vita Nuova in his narrative following the death of Beatrice which may give a clearer picture of his reasoning: XXIX “Now, according to the Arabian way of reckoning time, her most noble soul departed from us in the ninth hour of the ninth day of the month; according to the Syrian method, she died in the ninth month of the year, because the first month in that system is Tixryn the first, which we call October; and according to our way of reckoning, she departed this life in the year of our Christian era, that is of the years of Our Lord, in which the perfect number had been completed nine times in the century in which she had been placed in this world; for she was born a Christian of the thirteenth century. Why this number was so closely connected with her might be explained as follows. Since, according to Ptolomy and according to Christian truth, there are nine moving heavens, and according to common astrological opinion, these heavens affect the earth below according to their conjunctions, this number was associated with her to show that at her generation all nine of the moving heavens were in perfect conjunction one with the other.

This is one reason. But, thinking more deeply and guided by infallible truth, I say that she herself was this number nine; I mean this as an analogy, as I will explain. The number three is the root of nine, because, independent of any other number, multiplied by itself alone, it makes nine, as we see quite clearly when we say three threes are nine; therefore if three is the sole factor of nine, and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are three and one, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine to convey that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, of which the root, that is, of the miracle, is nothing other than the miraculous Trinity itself. Perhaps a more subtle mind could find a still more subtle meaning for it; but this is the one which I perceive and which pleases me the most”.