- See also Works by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the subject of his love and of another of his works, La Vita Nuova. While the vision of Hell, the Inferno, is vivid for modern readers, the theological niceties presented in the other books require a certain amount of patience and knowledge to appreciate. Purgatorio, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey (e.g., when Dante looks into the face of God: "all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa" — "at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe," Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).
With its seriousness of purpose, its literary stature and the range — both stylistically and subjectwise — of its content, the Comedy soon became a cornerstone in the evolution of Italian as an established literary language. Dante was more aware than most earlier Italian writers of the variety of Italian dialects and of the need to create a literature, and a unified literary language, beyond the limits of Latin writing at the time; in that sense he is a forerunner of the Renaissance, with its effort to create vernacular literature in competition with earlier classical writers. Dante's in-depth knowledge (within the limits of his time) of Roman antiquity, and his evident admiration for some aspects of pagan Rome, also point forward to the 15th century. Ironically, while he was widely honored in the centuries after his death, the Comedy slipped out of fashion among men of letters: too medieval, too rough and tragic, and not stylistically refined in the respects that the high and late Renaissance came to demand of literature.
He wrote the Comedy in a language he called "Italian", in some sense an amalgamated literary language mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, but with some elements of Latin and other regional dialects. He deliberately aimed to reach a readership throughout Italy including laymen, clergymen and other poets. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is sometimes nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first (among others such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to break free from standards of publishing in only Latin (the language of liturgy, history and scholarship in general but often also of lyric poetry). This break set a precedent and allowed more literature to be published for a wider audience, setting the stage for greater levels of literacy in the future. However, unlike Boccaccio, Milton or Ariosto, Dante did not really become an author read all over Europe until the Romantic era. To the Romantics, Dante, like Homer and Shakespeare, was a prime example of the "original genius" who sets his own rules, creates persons of overpowering stature and depth and goes far beyond any imitation of the patterns of earlier masters and who, in turn, cannot really be imitated. Throughout the 19th century, Dante's reputation grew and solidified, and by the time of the 1865 jubilee, he had become solidly established as one of the greatest literary icons of the Western world.
Readers often cannot understand how such a serious work may be called a "comedy". In Dante's time, all serious scholarly works were written in Latin, a tradition that would persist for several hundred years more until the waning years of the Enlightenment), and works written in any other language were assumed to be more trivial in nature. Furthermore, the word "comedy" in the classical sense refers to works which reflect belief in an ordered universe, in which events tended toward not only a happy or "amusing" ending but one influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. By this meaning of the word, as Dante himself wrote in a letter to Cangrande I della Scala, the progression of the pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the paradigmatic expression of comedy since the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.
Dante's other works include Convivio ("The Banquet"), a collection of his longest poems with an (unfinished) allegorical commentary; Monarchia, a summary treatise of political philosophy in Latin which was condemned and burned after Dante's death by the Papal Legate Bertrando del Poggetto, which argues for the necessity of a universal or global monarchy in order to establish universal peace in this life, and this monarchy's relationship to the Roman Catholic Church as guide to eternal peace; De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), on vernacular literature, partly inspired by the Razos de trobar of Raimon Vidal de Bezaudun; and, La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"), the story of his love for Beatrice Portinari, who also served as the ultimate symbol of salvation in the Comedy. The Vita Nuova contains many of Dante's love poems in Tuscan, which was not unprecedented; the vernacular had been regularly used for lyric works before, during all the thirteenth century. One of the most famous poems is Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare, which many Italians can recite by heart. However, Dante's commentary on his own work is also in the vernacular—both in the Vita Nuova and in the Convivio—instead of the Latin that was almost universally used. References to Divina Commedia are in the format (book, canto, verse), e.g., (Inferno, XV, 76).
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