Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Dante Alighieri

(1265-1321) Italian poet whose Commedia (begun circa 1300, mostly written 1313-1321; 1472; vt La Divina Commedia 1555; Book 1 trans Charles Rogers as The Inferno 1782; new trans H F Cary 1805-1806; the whole trans Cary as The Vision, or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise 1814; many modern trans as The Divine Comedy) is regarded as the culminating masterpiece of medieval literature, and is Taproot Text for fantasy. DA, whose family claimed descent from ancient Italian nobility, lived at the time of the political wars between the Guelphs (who supported the Pope) and the Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor). DA married into a powerful Guelph family and fought at the Battle of Campaldino (1289), where the Ghibellines were defeated. During the next decade, DA led an increasingly active political life, becoming one of the Chief Magistrates of the City and an ambassador to the Pope. His career foundered when the Guelphs split into two factions, the Bianchi ("White") and Neri ("Black"): DA favoured the Bianchi, initially the more dominant, but they were overthrown by the Neri in 1301. DA was banished and sentenced to death if he returned to Florence. He became a political exile wandering throughout Italy and beyond, and began writing in earnest. He had already earned a reputation as a poet after the publication of Vita Nuova ["New Life"] (written 1292-1294), which poured out his lifelong love for Beatrice Portinari (1265-1290), but he now turned his attention to works on politics, theology, language and culture. De Monarchia ["On Monarchy"] (written 1309-1313) espoused his views about the relationship between temporal and spiritual government. DA was of the belief that the Holy Roman Empire should function on the same basis as the old Roman Empire, providing a world government, but spiritually and morally responsible to the Pope. It was this same passion that inspired La Divina Commedia, which is a dual Allegory: on the progress of the soul toward Heaven; and on the anguish of humankind in seeking peace on Earth. Its intention would later be echoed by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress (1678-1684).

La Divina Commedia is divided into three parts. The first and best known is Inferno (written ?1307-?1315). It begins in the year 1300. DA has become lost in a wood (see Into the Woods), which represents the political turmoil of the time. There he encounters the spirit of Virgil, who conducts him through the nine levels of Hell (see also Inferno). The descent through Hell is in order to free the body of the temptation to sin. DA regarded Virgil as the epitome of human aspiration: only he was of sufficient authority to guide the Soul. DA also drew upon Virgil's Aeneid (19BC) for some of the imagery in Hell. At the centre Dante encounters Lucifer, with three heads gnawing at the ultimate betrayers – Brutus, Cassius and Judas. This powerful scene demonstrates DA's dual allegiance to the Roman Empire and to the Kingdom of Christ. DA believed the Papacy had turned against the true teachings of Christ, and he depicted seven former Popes in Hell. When Inferno was completed and copied, DA was proclaimed a heretic and his death sentence was renewed.

Twisting around the waist of Lucifer, Virgil and Dante enter a tunnel which leads to an ocean in which is the mountainous island of Purgatory. Purgatorio was probably written around 1312-1317. The ascent of the mountain of Purgatory is to cleanse (or purge) the soul in readiness for Paradise. A terraced path spirals up the mountain, and the less grievous the sin the easier the ascent. At the summit Virgil, who can go no further, leaves DA at the gates of the Earthly Paradise where he passes through Eden to meet Beatrice, the personification of pure Love. She conducts him through the fires of purification, then through the eight concentric spheres of Heaven, represented by the celestial bodies, until DA at last is able to gaze upon the supreme radiance of God. This final work, Paradiso, was written in DA's last years and the manuscript was found only after his death.

Along with the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), on which DA based his theology and cosmology, La Divina Commedia became one of the most influential and visionary works of the Middle Ages. Its most popular translation was that by Henry Cary (1772-1844), who issued Inferno (trans 1805 UK) first, and later the complete Divina Commedia (trans 1814 UK), still in print. A separate translation of The Inferno (trans 1961 UK) by Warwick Chipman is considered closer to the style and approach of DA. [MA]

Dante Alighieri


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.