“Florence, noblest among the cities of Italy...” – thus opens Giovanni Boccaccio's biography of Dante Alighieri, the famous Florentine poet and “father of the Italian language”. And truly, Florence flourished in the late 13th and early 14th century, a time when the city evolved into the one we still know today. The population grew rapidly, the city's fortification walls had to be extended and the foundations were laid for numerous buildings famous today. At the end of the 13th century, construction began on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Basilicas of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. They would leave a lasting mark on the cityscape.

Dante Alighieri's portrait by Sandro Botticelli
© Public domain
And even beyond the Tuscan metropolis, humankind seemed eager to fully subdue the world. There was a vibrant growth in trade, finance and industry, wood gave way to stone and metal as raw materials for numerous magnificent buildings, and Marco Polo set off on his voyages to Asia. The Dark Ages seemed to be slowly coming to an end and ushering in a new age – Florence was on its way to becoming the cradle and centre of the Italian Renaissance.

But there was a dark side to all these accomplishments. Florence and Tuscany were exposed to gunfire and tormented by constant battles between various hostile parties – the Guelphs fought against the Ghibellines, the Church against the Empire and, even among each other, feuds dragged on. The time was marked by defamation and inner-party fighting; one was considered a supporter of one and thus an enemy of the other. Bloodshed and devastation, constant fires and the advancing destruction of the cities were part of the daily routine. Dante eventually found himself among these feuds, and had to suffer severe consequences.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265, into an aristocratic Guelph family. Yet little is known about his family, his parents or even his wife Gemma Donati, with whom he had four children – they were practically omitted from his work.

Dante's life is marked by various political struggles. In addition to pursuing a political career, climbing the ranks and participating in various city councils, he took part in the fight of the Guelph vigilantes in the Battle of Campaldino (1289-1290), in which the Florentine Guelphs inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ghibellines who had previously come to power.

He ranked among the pro-church Guelphs who represented the Pope's interests, but around 1300 they split up into the Neri (the Black Guelphs who wanted Florence to be autonomous from the Papacy) and the Bianchi (the more willing to compromise and moderate White Guelphs). It was the latter that Dante counted himself among, although the leader of the Blacks, Corso Donati, was the cousin of his wife Gemma.

The increasingly fragmented political camps, divisions between moderate and more radical supporters, culminated in riots after a visit by a papal legate at the turn of the century, whereupon the city was banned from the church. Since Dante and his political companions defied Papal orders, he was eventually exiled from Florence in 1302. In case of his return, he was threatened with death at the stake. His wife and children did not follow him.

Exiled from his beloved Florence in the very middle of his life, he found himself in the exact state he depicts in the first verses of The Divine Comedy: gone astray.

Codex Altonensis, an extraordinarily ornate manuscript of La Divinia Commedia (1350-1410)
© Public domain

La Commedia or La Divina Commedia, the name given to his most important work posthumously, is not only the most significant work of Italian literature, but also indispensable to world literature. It brought him lasting fame and the title “Father of the Italian Language”. He did not write The Divine Comedy in Latin, as was customary at the time, but in the Italian vernacular, more precisely in the Tuscan dialect, thus establishing it as a written language in literature.

Besides the Commedia, his Rime and Vita Nuova are probably among his best-known works. Both deal with the theme of love, but especially his youthful work Vita Nuova (The New Life) tells of the fateful encounter with Beatrice, “la gloriosa donna della mia mente” (the noble mistress of my soul). She is praised as a muse and the ideal image of the feminine and he never seemed to let go of her for the rest of his life. It is also she who, together with the Roman poet Virgil, guides him through the three realms of the afterlife and culminates in some sort of divine knowledge at the end.

But first he has to begin his journey through the realms of the dead and Hell and the path through Purgatory, which had a lasting influence on the Western, Christian idea of afterlife. Numerous artists were inspired by this epic poem to create illustrations that were as imaginative as they were terrifying. From Sandro Botticelli to Gustave Doré to Salvador Dalì – they all provide insight not only into Dante's visions of Hell, but also into the depths of their own souls.

Dante, both author and protagonist, describes his journey as the result of a crisis, a mid-life crisis, so to speak, which is probably partly due to his exile and upon which, as the first lines of Inferno reveal, he embarks in the middle of his life:

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita 
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura 
che' la diritta via era smarrita.”

(Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.)

Mapa del Infierno by Sandro Botticelli
© Public domain

The Hell of Dante Alighieri is a huge funnel that extends to the centre of the earth and which, according to Dante, was formed by Lucifer's fall to earth. The mass released by the huge crater formed the mountain of purgatory where the dead souls repent of their sins.

The personalities Dante and Virgil encounter paint not only an impressive picture of Florentine society in the late 13th and early 14th century, but also the architecture of the Inferno. The most famous of the three parts, with its Nine Circles of Hell, limbo and numerous intermediate stages (such as in the infamous Malebolge, the Eighth Circle of Hell), into which Dante meticulously distributes all sinners according to their offences and the severity of their guilt, suggest a magnum opus that can only be slowly understood and with regard to Dante’s life, political views and philosophy. Dante seems to want to classify the conflicts of his time, the widely scattered and complex disputes of the different political camps and their members in a simple way. But also individuals get a hearing with him, whereby he cannot always suppress his own feelings. From pitying sadness at the sight of Francesca da Rimini to angry outbursts at the criminals in the Malebolge, he experiences all emotions on his hellish journey. He is not an impartial judge, but all too guided by his own feelings, yet without moralising – he does not excuse, but neither does he accuse.

A particularly distressing picture is painted by Dante in the deepest circle of the Inferno. Here, there is no eternal hellfire, but instead a freezing cold lake of ice. In this circle, Dante places the traitors and depicts Lucifer as a three-headed beast – with the heads of Judas, Brutus and Cassius – the traitors to Jesus and Caesar. But Lucifer himself does not express himself. He is silent and as soon as they arrive at the lowest point, they leave again. “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.” (The poets leave Hell and see the stars again.) This is how the Inferno ends. Suddenly, without a conclusion, without a moral.

Inferno, Canto XVIII by Sandro Botticelli
© Public domain

Dante often leaves it to the reader to judge for themselves what they have experienced. The Commedia is full of political allusions, references to his time and full of personalities he admires, but also those he detests. It is a universe to be explored, where Dante's personal views are revealed, such as at the end of the scene with Ugolino della Gherardesca, when he curses Pisa and one recognises in this cruel curse passionate hatred for the enemies who destroy any hope of his returning to his native Florence.

When it comes to Dante's significance as a philosopher, opinions are divided. While some consider him the first great poet of the modern era, others see his thoughts as outdated and partly inherited from his predecessors. Dante's wider work includes moral philosophical and political writings, such as De Monarchia and Il vonvivio (The Banquet), but also philological treatises on the Italian language, such as De vulgari eloquentia. His philosophical views shine through particularly in The Banquet, the first important philosophical work written in the Italian vernacular and aimed especially at laymen. He describes how, after Beatrice's death, philosophy became the new “mistress of his mind”. Here, philosophy is seen as the search for truth, the purpose of which is “that sublime love which knows no interruption and no flaw, which is true happiness acquired in the contemplation of truth”. Dante, as a devout Christian, speaks of love for God and sees religion and philosophy as closely intertwined as a “loving approach to wisdom”. For him, God is wise and just and has established Hell out of love for this very justice towards humankind. In it, Dante moves as a wanderer gone astray but also a learner, making himself the protagonist of his own works and his own search for truth. Always in view of the social and political events of his time, he becomes a chronicler, albeit stylised, and is thus not only a narrative and lyrical subject, but also a teaching subject – always with high ethical standards.

Dante's significance was already established a few years after his death – numerous commentaries on the Commedia were written and Boccaccio's biography further underpinned his legacy. It was Boccaccio who gave his magnum opus the title “Divina” – a truly divine, inspiring work of the highest poetic quality.

The Divine Comedy not only shaped the idea of Hell in the Middle Ages and the modern era, but has inspired numerous artists ever since, not least into the 21st century. There are countless literary references – from John Milton to TS Eliot and Dan Brown; visualisations of his visions of Hell in visual art, Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell being one of the most impressive examples. The adaptation of Dante's work is manifold.

And even classical music could not escape the fascination of the Commedia. From operas such as Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, who is only briefly mentioned in Dante, to Franz Liszt's truly gruesome Dante Symphonythe musical adaptations span all musical periods. Oper Frankfurt recently performed Lucia Ronchetti's commissioned work Inferno, which depicts Dante's journey through Hell without his companion Vergil, yet with a particular focus on his inner voice.

Even 700 years after Dante's death in exile in Ravenna, The Divine Comedy continues to fascinate us. Like no other, it is grotesque and excessive, incomparable and highly political. Nor are we indifferent to the life and work of its author, his enduring love for Beatrice and his political entanglements – they mesmerise, they move and they inspire!

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz