Study Guide

Dante Alighieri Introduction

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Dante Alighieri Introduction

He's been called il somma poeta (the supreme poet) and the father of the Italian language. Along with Petrarch and Boccaccio, he is one of Italy's Three Fountains, Three Crowns or three greatest poets. For some time, Italian language scholars sternly maintained that no word was truly Italian if it didn't appear in his Divine Comedy. He is Dante Alighieri, and he is one of the greatest poets of all time.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. When he was nine years old, he fell in love with an eight -year -old neighbor named Beatrice. Even though they rarely spoke, Dante rhapsodized about her for the rest of his life. Dante's love for Beatrice inspired him to develop a new style of poetry worthy of her virtues, a genre that took the celebration of love as its central theme. As Dante matured, this love morphed from the physical love of another human being to the divine love of God. Once a prominent politician in Florence, Dante was falsely accused of corruption in an act of political treachery and exiled from his native city. As his exile stretched into years, then decades, Dante created a three-part poem that symbolized his own personal transformation as well as the journey of the human soul. The pilgrim in the Divine Comedy journeys through Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory, which in Catholic theology is sort of heaven's waiting room) and Paradiso (heaven, where he is reunited with God and Beatrice). It is one of the greatest works in the history of literature. Dozens of scholars have driven themselves crazy trying to translate the magic of Dante's Italian into English.

Dante's poetry is for everyone who has ever been in love, who has ever felt lost, who has ever felt betrayed or just incredibly grateful that everything worked out okay. In other words, Dante's poetry is for everyone.

Dante Alighieri Trivia

In Canto XXV of Inferno, the pilgrim encounters a thief "making the fig" with both hands. "Making the fig" is an obscene gesture, equivalent to "flipping the bird," that Italians still enjoy today.

In Canto XXI of Inferno, when the pilgrim and Virgil are escorted into the next circle by the demons, the lead demon signals that it's time to go when he makes "a trumpet of his ass"—that is, when he farts.

Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno all end with the same word—stars.

Dante's body was not allowed to rest in peace after his 1321 death in Ravenna. After he was buried in Ravenna's San Pier Maggiore Church (now St. Francesco's), the city of Florence decided that they wanted the poet's body back. Ravenna said no way. The matter seemed closed until 1865, when a construction worker demolishing a wall at St. Francesco's discovered Dante's coffin, with Dante's remains still inside. Apparently church officials had hidden Dante in a wall to prevent Florentines from kidnapping his corpse. Weirder still is that - during the time it took to rebury the body - several people helped themselves to pieces of the poet. In 1878, the former town clerk of Ravenna returned a box of Dante's bones that he had stolen twelve years earlier. Ewww!

Translators won't leave Dante alone. More than 50 English editions of Inferno appeared just in the twentieth century alone. Columbia literature professor James V. Mirollo has said.

T.S. Eliot learned Italian just so he could read Dante in the original Italian. Show off.

Michelangelo is said to have listened to a reading of The Inferno while he painted "The Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel.

Dante Alighieri Resources


Robert Pinsky, The Inferno of Dante (1994)
There were more than 50 English translations of Dante in the twentieth century. Robert Pinsky's attempt may be our favorite. Pinsky, who was America's Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, doesn't just copy Dante's lines literally into English. He re-works them into English in a way that is faithful to the spirit and lyricism of Dante's poem instead of just the letter.

Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy , Everyman's Library edition (1995)
Mandelbaum's translation of Dante's three canticles is widely regarded as the best English translation of the Divine Comedy out there. Mandelbaum has been decorated by the governments of Florence and Italy for his faithful interpretation of the works of il sommo poeta(or "the supreme poet").

R.W.B. Lewis, Dante (2001)
Dante died almost 700 years ago, and so there's really not that much information for biographers to go on. Lewis' biography is a slim yet comprehensive volume that offers a clear, straightforward explanation of Dante's life and the complicated times he lived in. If you want a good introduction to Dante without hundreds of pages of detail, this is your book.

Harriet Rubin, Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How it Made History (2004)
Rubin's readable, entertaining book looks at the life of Dante Alighieri through his unrequited passion for Beatrice Portinari and the writing of the Divine Comedy . Dante's love for Beatrice—a young girl he met when they were children and spoke to only a handful of times before her early death—ranks as one of the oddest yet powerfully influential love affairs in history.

Robert Hollander, Dante: A Life in Works (2001)
Hollander is a professor at Princeton University who has studied Dante for more than 40 years. In this book, he looks to the poet's works for clues about his personal development. Many of Dante's greatest works, such as Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy , are strongly autobiographical.

Kimberley Heuston, Dante's Daughter (2003)
This young adult novel is told from the point of view of Antonia Alighieri, Dante's only daughter. In this book, she is a vibrant young woman in search of herself. In real life, Antonia joined a convent.

Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club (2003)
This is a historical-fiction thriller set in 1865. Pals Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes are translating Dante together when a serial murderer strikes town, committing brutal offings modeled after the punishments in Dante's Inferno. And then the writers turn into crime solvers!


Early Music
What would Dante have danced to at his wedding? What music would have been playing in the background as Francesco and Paolo kissed? (Okay, probably none—there were no stereos then.) Still, music was an important part of the medieval period, and this site is a great introduction to the music of Dante's era and beyond.

"Dante's Prayer" by Loreena McKennitt
Singer and songwriter Loreena McKennitt wrote this song based on the Divine Comedy . "When the dark wood fell before me/ And all the paths were overgrown . . . When the dawn seemed forever lost/ You showed me your love in the light of the stars." Sound familiar?

Sergei Rachmaninoff and Riccardo Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini Opera
These two operas are both based on the story of Francesca da Rimini, the woman trapped in Dante's Inferno thanks to her adulterous relationship with her lover Paolo. Forced to marry a deformed man whom she does not love, Francesca fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo. The doomed lovers are stuck forever in the winds of passion in Dante's Hell. Rachmaninoff's opera, originally composed with a Russian libretto, takes place in two acts. Zandonai's, originally sung in Italian, takes place in four.

Robert W. Smith, The Divine Comedy Symphony
American composer Robert Smith has composed symphonies based on Homer's Odyssey and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. This epic work was inspired by Dante. Like Dante's masterpiece, the symphony moves from Hell to Purgatory and then finally to Paradise.

Franz Liszt, The Dante Sonata
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt wrote this sonata for the piano based on Dante's Divine Comedy . It is written to evoke the feelings associated with Dante's work.


Dante Alighieri
Portrait by Botticelli, c. 1495

Dante by Giotto
Painting in the Bargello Palace, Florence

3-D Dante
Sculpture of the poet in Florence's Uffizi gallery.

Beata Beatrix
Dante's love, as painted by Rossetti.

Dante and Beatrice
A painting of the couple by Henry Holiday, 1883

Dante's Tomb, Ravenna
The site where his body is actually buried.

Dante's Tomb, Florence
Until Ravenna agrees to return the poet's remains to his hometown, this tomb in Santa Croce Church will stand empty.

The Gates of Hell
Rodin's breathtaking sculpture depicting The Inferno.

The World According to Dante
A map of the heavens and earth as described in the Divine Comedy .

The Map From Hell
The geography of Dante's Inferno

Movies & TV

Dante's Inferno (1924)
Dante's scenes of horror are gripping on the page, but onscreen they can be just gross. This horror movie is only loosely based on Dante's Inferno. After a corrupt businessman is falsely accused of murder and executed, his soul travels to Hell.

Dante's Inferno (2007)
This movie recasts Dante's Inferno in a gritty, urban landscape. It is shot using a unique type of paper puppetry. Whatever you think of it, you certainly won't see anything else like it.

A Divina Comédia
This Portugese film is about a psychiatric ward whose inhabitants all believe that they are characters in major literary or religious works. Dante's Inferno is among the works that the delusional souls draw from.

Paolo e Francesca (1953)
This Italian film is about the passionate love and tragic death of Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers of The Inferno. It is based on a true story of a real couple that lived in Florence during Dante's time. Quite the scandal.

What Dreams May Come (1998)
This film, starring Robin Williams (and based on a novel by Richard Matheson), incorporates a number of themes echoing Dante's works. After Williams' character is killed in a car accident and his wife commits suicide from guilt, he travels to the underworld with a guide in order to rescue her.

Hannibal (2001)
In this scary, disgusting sequel to Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter, a criminal hiding out in Florence in the guise of a scholar specializing in the work of Dante Alighieri. But he's not! He's actually a murderous monster! Stay the Dantean Hell away!


Digital Dante
For a guy born 700 years before the birth of the Internet, Dante has a great presence online. This site from Columbia University is a clean, comprehensive introduction to Dante's life, works, and times. Helpful links direct you to other places on the Web with information on Dante and the medieval period.

This gorgeous site from the University of Texas at Austin is essentially an illustrated, online, annotated version of the Divine Comedy . Though there are many places on the Internet devoted to Inferno, this site gives equal weight to Paradiso and Purgatorio. It's also beautiful and easy to use and understand. Go Longhorns.

The Divine Comedy
It's the Divine Comedy like you've never seen it before. This site is incredible, offering you choices on everything from which translation to read to the ways you'd like the page annotated. Would you prefer your Commedia illustrated by Botticelli, Dali or Dore? Just click. Dante couldn't have predicted this.

Dartmouth Dante Project
The Dartmouth Dante Database is attempting to put the texts of all the commentary written about the Divine Comedy in the last 700 years online. It's not the easiest website in the world to use, but it's an incredible resource if you know what you're looking for.

Great Dante
This site maintained by Carlo Alberto Furia is a simple introduction to Dante. He does a great job of summarizing the complex politics of Dante's time. It has galleries of art, texts, and fun facts related to Dante.

Internet Medieval Sourcebook
Fordham University maintains this incredible online library of all things medieval. There is more information at this site than you will be able to deal with, but it is an extremely useful study guide to the Middle Ages.

The Labyrinth
Georgetown University's online medieval library is a fun treasure trove. You can search their vast online archives by subject—such as feudalism or magic and alchemy—or by the type of subject you're interested in. It's also a helpful study aide, particularly for longer projects.

Video & Audio

Pronouncing Dante
Your Italian's not so hot? These audio clips teach you how to pronounce names and titles from Dante's texts.

Animated Dante
Watch "Dante" read a stanza from the Divine Comedy .

Dante's Inferno game trailer
Dante's Hell is now a video game.

Claymation Hell
The Inferno told in Claymation.

Rodin - The Gates of Hell
A mini documentary about Rodin's great sculpture inspired by Dante.

Dante's Plastic Inferno
Hell. In Legos.

An Open Letter to Dante
Feeling frustrated with Dante? This girl vents for you.

Primary Sources

The Divine Comedy
Harvard Classics edition

Vita Nuova
Dante's love poem to Beatrice.

Dante's unfinished meditation on philosophy.

Dante's treatise on the relationship between church and state.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Dante's entry in the online text.

Dethroning Dante
1965 article from Time magazine.

Mr. Longfellow's Dante
An 1867 of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation of The Inferno.

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