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Dante ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Dante ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Dante Alighieri was born in the Italian city state of Florence in the year 1265. When he was nine years old, he first saw Beatrice (pronounced Be-a-TRE-che) Portinari, who was also nine. She didn’t even speak to him for nine years after that, surprising him that she knew his name. For Dante, Beatrice became his ideal of love. It was a spiritual love that transcended any earthly appetites. She died at an early age, about twenty-five, but Dante never forgot to the end of his life the effect she had on him. She figured prominently in his epic poem The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia in Italian) and in other of his works. He went on to marry, not Beatrice but another woman, and had three sons and a daughter. (His daughter became a nun and his sons became celebrated in their own right.)

Poetry in Dante’s time was mostly being written in Latin for the educated few, but Dante wrote in Italian, thereby legitimizing and popularizing the practice of writing in one’s own dialect, which in his case was Tuscan. People at once recognized his genius. His entry into politics, however, caused him to be exiled from Florence, and he was never allowed to return. He traveled around from place to place for the rest of his life. He wrote his most famous work, The Divine Comedy, over a period of about twelve years, from 1308 to 1320, one year before his death from malaria at the age of fifty-six.

Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, is one of the most famous and celebrated literary works in the world. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. On the surface it describes Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, but on a deeper level it is an allegory representing a soul’s journey toward God. Inferno is on one level a horror story as Dante witnesses souls in eternal torment for sins they committed while still alive, each sinner being punished according to his own sin. Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who lived from 70 B.C. to 19 B.C., serves as Dante’s guide through hell, into purgatory, and then into heaven. In Purgatorio, souls have at least a chance for redemption (which in some cases might take centuries) after they have paid their penance. Paradiso is, of course, what all aspire to (but few seem to attain), and there Dante meets his divine Beatrice and eventually sees God.

This concise (200 pages) biography by R. W. B. Lewis in the “Penguin Lives” series is an overview and introduction to the life and work of a long-ago literary figure who still packs a wallop today for a lot of people who have made it their business to know these things. If you are a student of literature or Italian or Italian literature, or a person who just likes to read biographies because they are “about” something, then Dante is an interesting figure to learn more about.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

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