Why Dante Alighieri Still Matters Today, 700 Years After His Death



In commemoration of 700 years since the death of Dante Alighieri, Dr. Daniela Boccassini, Professor of Italian, shares why his works are still significant today. A list of Dante-related events and resources are also listed for those who wish to explore Dante’s influence more deeply. 

image URL

Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (1852) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

“Dante's most famous poem The Divine Comedy (Comedìa) is apt to teach us how progressively to uncover the vastness that lies hidden within every single atom of our own self and of the universe, of which we are unknowingly a part — like fish in water.”
Professor of Italian

In the words of Pope Francis (2014), Dante is “a prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity.” As such, he “still has much to say and to offer through his immortal works to those who wish to follow the route of true knowledge and authentic discovery of the self, the world and the profound and transcendent meaning of existence.” In order to do this, Dante walks a very thin line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the path taken by visionaries of all times and spiritual traditions.

Today, Dante’s cosmic perspective is more inspiring than ever, playing an exemplary role in the 20th century in shaping the worldview of Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, and the “wild sacred” vision of Thomas Berry, the father of spiritual ecology.

It is indeed as a “wounded healer”, a “modern shaman”, and even more compellingly, perhaps, as an “ante litteram ecologist” and “activist of the world-soul” that Dante asks to be understood today — once we free his shattering vision from the shackles of society’s legitimizing and self-serving needs.


Who is Dante Alighieri?

image URL

Dante's Inferno (1757-1827) by William Blake.

Dante Alighieri is arguably the most famous exile in human history, and one among a handful of great visionary poets. He was born in Florence in 1265 and lived there until the year 1300, until a putsch organized by the faction of the “Black Guelphs” with the support of the Papacy caused him, as one of the prominent “White Guelph” political figures of the city, to be sentenced to perpetual banishment (or death at the stake, should he have attempted to return). Consequently, Dante spent the remaining 21 years of his life in exile and died of malaria at age 56, in Ravenna, the last of the few Italian cities that hosted him in his wanderings.

Aside from his involvement in Florentine political life, Dante distinguished himself for being, at the same time, a highly educated man, exceptionally versed in philosophy, theology, literature, and the sciences. In his understanding of fields as disparate as medicine, physiology, psychology, astronomy, mathematics, and law, he combined the classical heritage with some of the most advanced contemporary discoveries in these fields.

Along with this academic or learned side, he was also a highly gifted poet, as well as what we would call a visionary: someone who could see into and through the appearances of things. He even states that he knew how to draw or paint, and maybe he could also sing his own poems; and indeed we know he was passionate about music and the visual arts as well. All of these gifts rarely go together.


The Divine Comedy

image URL

Collections of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana | Source: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

“From exile to reintegration, from wretchedness to felicity, this is the story of a process of inner transmutation, whose liberating power has touched countless readers over the ages and across cultures.”

He wrote poems and philosophical, argumentative treatises of various kinds. When alive, he was renowned, and feared, for his powerful eloquence and his diplomatic abilities.

Today, he is especially well-known for the poem he wrote while in exile, which he called his Comedìa (comedy). The poem had such an extraordinary success that already a few years after his death a younger poet, Giovanni Boccaccio, called it “divine” as a tribute to its unsurpassed poetic, visionary, and human qualities, and that adjective has remained attached to it to this day.

He could have lived his exile as the most diminishing and alienating of human experiences. He turned it into the most extraordinary of opportunities to understand himself and the contradictions of human life on earth. From exile to reintegration, from wretchedness to felicity, this is the story of a process of inner transmutation, whose liberating power has touched countless readers over the ages and across cultures.

His Comedìa takes us on a most unusual journey. We begin our travels quivering with the wayfarer at the outskirts of a ghastly dark forest, and we end them basking in the blissful light of a cosmic embrace. What makes such a change of perspective possible? It is the journey itself, answers Dante, who in his visionary exploration of “the beyond” is taught by his teachers, Virgil and Beatrice, how fearlessly to approach the abysses of the human psyche.

The key universal themes that he touched upon in his work were: exile and reintegration, the mystery of life, and its unfathomable and inseparable complement: the mystery of life after death. Regardless of whether we believe there is a life after death, he showed his readers how that very uncertainty affects the daily life we live on earth.


Impact

image URL

The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice (1853) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

After being a huge success in the 1300s throughout the Italian peninsula, Dante’s Comedìa was transcribed, commented on and illustrated in countless manuscripts during the 1400s, and became one of the Italian vernacular texts favoured by the printing presses in the 1500s. The Italian language is deeply rooted into Dante’s vernacular; contrary to what happens, for example, in English, where no one today would be able to read unaided texts composed in “Middle English” and authors such as Chaucer or even Shakespeare, Dante’s vernacular is still, in essence, the language spoken in Italy today.

From Chaucer and Christine de Pizan, all poets and writers across Europe from the 1300s onwards knew the Comedìa, which began to be translated very early on.

Also, his life-long ‘love affair’ with Beatrice has shaped the imagination of poets and writers through the centuries, who have lived and sung their inner experiences according to those parameters (either to confirm them, or to contest them). On the other hand, only a few have dared recreate his explorations of the beyond. I am thinking, for example, of Milton and Blake. But countless have been the translations of the Comedìa through the centuries, in all kinds of languages. Only in English, Wikipedia counts about 20 “notable” translations since the 1800s.


Events Celebrating 700 Years Since Dante’s Death

In commemoration of the 700th anniversary since Dante’s death, hundreds of events are being organized around the globe. Below is a list of events taking place at UBC, locally, and abroad.