January 16, 2018

Dante, Florence and the Divine Comedy

In 1300, at the age of thirty-five, Dante Alighieri was exiled from his home, the city-state of Florence, never to return. Italian politics at the time were dirty and dangerous, and to go into public life, as Dante did, was to go armed: Florentine fought Pisan, papist fought royalist, nobleman fought merchant, and family fought family. Florence was a democratic commune, but one so wary of corruption and power-plays, that the city's highest political officers, the "Priors" were limited to just two months in office. As a Prior, Dante's policies of compromise were unpopular with the militants; when he was out of the country, they trumped-up a conviction for graft, and he was banished.

He lost his property and his wife and, if he were to dare to return, he would also lose his life. But Dante kept his reputation as a scholar and statesman, and he kept his ability to write, and over the next 20 impoverished years, as he roamed from one patron to another throughout Europe, he wrote The Divine Comedy.

He also kept a grudge. The Inferno, the first book of the Commedia -- the adjective "Divine" was not added until 200 years later -- is packed with Dante's political enemies, each with his place in fire or ice.

But the Commedia is more than a poet-politician's payback, and more than dull doctrine or pious hymn. Dante's Underworld and Overworld are full of people -- bankers and popes, housewives and prostitutes, lovers and warriors -- the best and, most memorably, worst, that history and legend and human nature had to offer, caught in poetic frieze.

The line-up at the Gates of Hell is long and familiar. Check-in is slow; plenty of time for the Opportunists, the Wrathful, the Seducers, the Grafters, the Hypocrites, the Falsifiers, and the many worse to ponder the difficult advice on the archway inscription: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." Once in, each in his adjudged circle, all will be kept eternally, infernally busy. There is a terrible justice to most punishments, an inversion of the sinner's behaviour on earth: Gluttons wasted their lives on consumption, and so now wallow forever in a frozen garbage dump; the Sullen whined their way through life's beauty, and now live in a sea of slime, their mumbled complaints a choking gargle in their throats; Flatterers float in a river of excrement, forever full of it.

Fourteenth century Florence had a booming economy, and a merchant-trader elite that, to Dante's Christian disgust, amassed or squandered their money; in Hell, the Hoarders and the Wasters are chained to heavy rocks, which they roll and crash against each other, the Wasters shrieking "Why do you hoard?" and the Hoarders, "Why do you waste?"

To the Sowers of Discord, Dante assigns a deeper circle in Hell. They tore his beloved Florence -- and his own life -- apart with their political and religious intrigues; a great demon now hacks at them as they track round his pit. Some have arms or faces slashed away, some have internal organs dangling behind -- one, Dante notes in horror, escorts his own severed head:
    I saw it there; I seem to see it still --            a body without a head, that moved along            like all the others in that spew and spill. It held the severed head by its own hair,            swinging it like a lantern in its hand,            and the head looked at us and wept in its despair.
The Commedia is inspired by Dante's life-long love for the famous Beatrice. There was a first glance at the age of nine, and a first hello at the age of eighteen, but at this rate, even had they both not been betrothed to others, Dante could not have hoped for much. When Beatrice died at the age of twenty-four, real desire turned to idealized devotion, and she became Dante's icon of purity and Divine Love. In Book Three, the Paradiso, it is Beatrice who guides him to God, where he is embraced
               as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars --            by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.
Dante's earthly hope was that the Commedia would sway the ruling powers of Florence to grant him a reprieve from exile; this did not happen, and he died on September 14, 1321, just days after writing those last lines of the Paradiso.

But the poem was immediately popular, and fifty years after his death it was being given official public readings. Today the Commedia is given few private readings, but those willing to temporarily abandon the 20th century and enter there, will find the 700 year-old poetry -- if not more -- divine.

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