It is hard to quantify just how much of an impact Dante’s The Divine Comedy had on Renaissance Italy and beyond.
Touted as one of the greatest poets in the whole canon, and an icon of Italy itself, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is both a commentary on life, religion, and the perils of the human condition while also referencing art, history, and culture both ancient and current for the poet himself.
A key component in the development of humanist thought, Dante Alighieri was himself born into Florence’s elite and would eventually become a student of theology and philosophy after suffering a personal tragedy.
As part of the Florentine elite, Dante’s family was often involved in the city’s bloody political internecine struggles.
In fact, these would lead to his permanent exile from the city after he refused to pledge allegiance to the White Guelph faction over the Black Guelphs. While the period of exile was challenging for Dante from a personal standpoint, it also helped contribute to a burgeoning talent for poetry.
While the Divine Comedy is not his only work, it is his most famous and one without peer among both his own bibliography as well as including that of others.
An epic, three-part poem comprised of 100 cantos each, the Divine Comedy depicts Dante’s progression through the Christian concept of the afterlife along with vivid descriptions of each. These three regions include Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, corresponding to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Central to the poem itself is the idea that humanity is drawn towards God through a natural progression.
It is further postulated that this movement is eternal, perpetual, and removed from time itself. This is often symbolized by the recall of great poets and sages of the past who are shown to be in alignment with this logic because of their natural inclination towards it.
Guided by the Roman poet Virgil during his journey, the Divine Comedy is not without its share of the grotesque, macabre, and fantastical.
Beyond its content, Dante’s use of vernacular language elevated Tuscan to the literary language of Italy itself. It is also signaled a shift in the expression of literature in vernacular language in general. Philosophically speaking, the Divine Comedy’s assertion there is some good in this world and merit to living in it.
This was a huge departure from the medieval Christian notion that this life is wholly corrupt and that all of one’s attention should be focused on the world to come.