The dust jackets of modern editions of The Divine Comedy typically call it a “grand culmination” of late medieval civilization, yet Dante’s vision of politics, history, Limbo, Purgatory, and the church was anything but standard fare for the Middle Ages. His poem appears more like an act of epic defiance, or a thunderstorm coming up against the prevailing wind, to recall Kierkegaard’s characterization of genius.
Anyone reading The Divine Comedy for the first time knows how it comes at you with overwhelming strangeness, drawing you into its dark wood of confusion, down into the entrails of Hell, then up the terraces of the Mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere before lifting off into the heavenly spheres of Paradiso, the canticle that ventures into “waters that have never yet been sailed,” stupefying those few readers who manage to make it this far into the journey. Who could have written such a poem, and how?
Unlike Shakespeare, whose corpus one searches in vain for insight into the author’s selfhood, we have abundant access to Dante’s psyche, thanks to the self-editorializing drive in all his major works, from the Vita Nuova to the Convivio to The Divine Comedy. Dante funneled everything—history, truth, cosmos, salvation—through his first-person singular, the famous “I” who finds himself “in the middle of our life’s way” as the poem opens. Yet despite his bold self-exposure, the writing of the Comedy remains a mystery. How did the vision come to him, and how much of it did he have inside his mind when he began writing? Some of it, most of it, all of it?
In Inferno 4 Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, Hell’s first circle, where the pilgrim’s pagan guide points out an august assembly of poets: Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. Virgil steps away to join the “beautiful school” (la bella scola), and after they exchange a few words with Virgil, the greatest poets of the ancient world turn to Dante and greet him. Then they do him “an even greater honor,” for “they made me one of their band, so that I was sixth among so much wisdom.”
The image of Dante as the sixth member of such a tribe does not strike us as preposterous today; yet when he composed that early canto, he had not yet written The Divine Comedy. He was a Florentine rhymester, known in select circles for some fine love lyrics, some of which were almost as good as those of his friend Guido Cavalcanti. In his splendid television commentary on this scene in Limbo, Roberto Benigni compares the bella scola to a group of scientists on the order of Einstein, Fermi, and Oppenheimer welcoming into their ranks a local electrician.
Marco Santagata, a professor of Italian…
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