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ClassicsOnline Home » DANTE: Life of Dante (A) (FLYNN) (Unabridged)
Dante’s vision The Divine Comedy has profoundly affected every generation since it first appeared in the early fourteenth century. Here is a brief account of his life, compiled from various sources (including his first biographer, Boccaccio) by Benedict Flynn, whose new translation of the Comedy on Naxos AudioBooks, read by Heathcote Williams, has been widely acclaimed. It sets the known facts of Dante’s life against the turmoil of the times, and puts the very personal nature of his poetry into perspective.
By Gerald Fenech
A Life of Dante
The Italy of Dante’s time was lively, vigorous, occasionally
dangerous but certainly bold. The central mediaeval period—the Dark Ages, as
they are traditionally called—were over, and the first stirrings of the
Renaissance could be detected. It was a time when learning, kept alive within
the Church during those difficult centuries after the collapse of the Roman
Empire, was being rediscovered by the aristocracy; and the growing class of
merchants flourished in this profitable period of trade and commerce, where
powerful guilds were growing and benefiting from the new trading routes.
With the help of translations from the Arabic, the works and
thoughts of classical Greece —in particular Aristotle—were beginning to cast an
influence once more; and music and poetry, through the troubadours, and
painters were transforming the artistic lives and environment of late 13th
Of course, the Church continued to be the primary single
influence—often in matters of state as well as religion. In Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire
ruled over its people in a stricter alliance between church and state,
continuing the traditions of the Roman empire of the Caesars. In the West,
however, and in particular in the Italian peninsular, there was no longer such
a neat homogeneity.
The city-state was the primary unit. Florence, Venice,
Ravenna, Pistoia, and Siena—the citizens felt loyalty to the place of their
birth. The loyalty was defined by their home town, rather than their nation or
their language; and politics and the rule of law was dictated by constantly
shifting alliances, making the Italy of the 13th and 14th centuries an
unpredictable place to be. And only too often, if there wasn’t a dominant political
or military power, foreign kings or princes would be called upon to involve
themselves in local disputes for spoil, lands or political benefits. The only
single personage to hold some measure of national control over Italy was the
Pope—through his religious power.
This was reflected in the two main political factions. The
Ghibellines—who looked towards the Holy Roman Emperor as their principal
protector, represented the aristocratic party. The opposing party was
represented by the Guelfs (among them, powerful bankers) hoping for more
democratic rule, which looked towards the Pope as their principal figure.
This was the background of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) as he
grew up in Florence. It is important to have some idea of this setting, for
although The Divine Comedy may be set in another world, and meant as a
commentary for mankind for all time, it was, paradoxically, placed very
strongly in Dante’s own time. Many of the characters that appear in the
Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso were contemporaries or near contemporaries of
Dante himself. This is why, when he enters into conversation with them, in
their enduring trials, he often talks about matters other than their ‘sins’ or
the actions that led them to their place of penance or reflection. We need the
footnotes to explain the background, but Dante’s contemporaries would have
known about them directly.
This is also why he wrote in Italian rather than Latin, the
accepted custom of the time.
He wanted The Divine Comedy to be read by a wider audience
than offered by Latin, a language not necessarily studied by many of the new
merchant families. Dante also makes the point that writing in Italian would
have allow greater access to the poem by women.
So, the life of Dante, and the background against which he
wrote, is essential to a reading of The Divine Comedy. He was born into a Guelf
family. His natural aptitude for learning and poetry was recognized, and he
became active in the state life of Florence, becoming one of the Priors, which
exercised considerable influence on the running of the city. But however able
as a man of letters, he seemed less adept at operating in the darker shadows of
politics and intrigue, and came out the worse after infighting between two
sections of the Guelf party, the Blacks and the Whites. In
1302, while away from Florence, he was condemned to the stake and had no choice
but to go into exile. It proved to be a bitter life sentence, not helped by his
changing political views, which resulted in him being known as Dante the Ghibelline.
This was the public part of his life. The more private
(though it became very public...) was his reverence for a girl he saw from a
distance when he was nine. The encounter with Beatrice Portinari was to
transform his inner life and propel him along the road of poetry, which was to
sustain his life as an exile. Nine years after that initial sight of her, he
met her at a party and they exchanged a few words. A little later, they met
again, but she had heard some ‘scandalous’ reports about him and snubbed him.
He was heartbroken. He saw her at a distance once more before she died in 1290.
Despite—perhaps because—he seems to have had a reputation
for leading a passionate life, Dante described his feelings for Beatrice very
clearly as ‘most chaste’. Passion travels easily (and even simultaneously) down
both secular and sacred routes, and, for Dante, Beatrice became the symbol of
purity, a constant star that his uncertain life so needed.
She provided the impulse for his poetry. His learning and
his awareness of political and commercial life were unusually combined with an
energy for living and the spiritual search. Out of all this and his
homelessness, emerged The Divine Comedy.
Notes by Nicolas Soames
Born in Birmingham and brought up in Manchester, John
Shrapnel joined the National Theatre (under Laurence Olivier) playing many
classical roles including Banquo and Orsino. With the Royal Shakespeare Company
he has appeared in classical Greek theater as well as numerous Shakespearean
plays. His television work varies from Stoppard’s Professional Foul and Vanity
Fair to Inspector Morse and Hornblower. Films include Nicholas and Alexandra,
One Hundred and One Dalmatians and the role of Gaius in Gladiator.
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DANTE: Life of Dante (A) (FLYNN) (Unabridged)