Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Reading Dante

Today, September 14, is the 700th anniversary of the death of the greatest of medieval poets, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), whose Divina Comedia famously takes the reader on an amazing pilgrimage through the cosmos from the depths of hell through purgatory to the beatific vision in heaven, the cosmos ordered by God's power, wisdom, and love. A century ago, in honor of the 600th anniversary of Dante's death, Pope Benedict XV's encyclical In praeclara summorum said Dante was one "of the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast" and a "pride and glory of humanity."

Italy in Dante's day (and for long after) was a complex of rivalries among cities, petty principalities, and noble families, opposing one another and taking sides in the overarching rivalry between the two major long-term principal players in the politics of the peninsula, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. In the convoluted politics of his time, Dante's family was loyal to the "Guelphs," the faction that supported the Pope in opposition to the "Ghibellines," the faction that favored the Emperor. Exiled from his beloved Florence in 1302, he never again got to return to the city which was his identity, but during those latter years of exile he gave us his masterpiece, the great poem set in the Jubilee year of 1300, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" (at the midpoint of the journey of his earthly life). 

During his exile, Dante became a supporter of Emperor Henry VII who invade Italy in 1310 and in whom Dante came to see a new Charlemagne, and he wrote De Monarchia, advocating a universal empire. Unlike that explicitly political treatise, however, the great poem that is his greatest legacy was written in the Tuscan vernacular and thus helped make that Italian version of evolving Latin the language of all Italy. 

Dante died and was buried in Ravenna. His home city, Florence, from which he had been unjustly exiled, made repeated requests for the return of his remains and even built a tomb for him in the Basilica of Santa Croce The custodians of the bod in 1829, but it remains empty. To protect their treasure, the citizens of Ravenna at one point even concealed his body in a false wall of a monastery! 

In celebration of this greatest of poets, I have signed myself up for a special online program, "100 Days of Dante," which offers video introductions to each of the 100 cantos of the Divina Comedia, narrated by teachers and scholars, in order to guide the reader through this treasure of spiritual and political poetic inspiration. To access "100 Days of Dante," go to:


Photo: The oldest known image of Dante, painted prior to his exile, probably by Giotto, in the Bargello palace chapel, Florence.

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