When I was in college, I took a great books course. Let me tell you, it earned its name as an ‘honors’ course. Quite literally, the Jesuits sat around and thought up the best way to haze the first-semester freshmen who came into the university thinking they were smart. Just to give you an idea of how difficult this course was, it was worth six credit hours – three for the lecture, three for the discussion group – and, if passed, covered about half of the general education requirements of the university. It was the first time I had ever seen a C on a test, and I wasn’t the only one. We read and discussed one book a week, and it was usually a book of epic proportions: Over the course of the semester, we read the Odyssey by Homer, The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and the Aeneid by Virgil, among others. The last book of the semester, which we read the week before taking the final, was the first installment of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno.
The stress of that class was doubled by the necessity of reading an entire epic the week before the final. Needless to say, we the students were less than impressed. We decided it would be appropriate if we hung a banner over the door to the lecture hall where we’d be taking the final, reading: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate.
Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.
Despite the fact that we were going to hang the last line of the inscription over the gates of Hell above the doors of Galvin Auditorium, we all, much like the Pilgrim, made it out alive. Also like the Pilgrim, we knew more coming out than we did going in. Unlike the Pilgrim, we did not move on to Purgatory, but rather to a luncheon that was our professors’ way of patting us on the back for making it through the semester.
Even with such vivid memories of reading Dante’s works, we actually know very little about the poet himself. Durante “Dante” Alighieri was born sometime around 1265 in Florence. I say ‘sometime around’ because that date is speculation based on what he writes in Inferno: He places the action of the story “Midway upon the journey of our life,” which would have made him about 35 years old, based on the life expectancy of 70 years old as set down in the Bible, and he wrote that in 1300. From this, you can see just how shaky our understanding of his life is.
When he was nine years old, he met his muse, Beatrice Portinari, at Santa Margherita church in Florence. This was also the church in which he married Gemma Donati, sometime between 1285 and 1290.
In Dante’s day, Florence was politically divided a la Hatfields and McCoys. The Guelfi were a political group that supported the authority of the Pope, and the Ghibellini were a political group that supported the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1301, the Guelfi took control of the city. As a Guelfo, you’d think Dante would have been safe. However, after the Guelfi came to power in 1301, yet another division was created: the Guelfi Neri and the Guelfi Bianchi. The Guelfi Neri were the ones in power, and Dante was a Guelfo Bianco.
Dante went to Rome to do some business in 1301, and was tried in his absence and found guilty of corruption in his position as a public officer, and was sentenced to pay a fine. Unfortunately, not only was he in another city, his assets had been seized by the Guelfi Neri and he no longer had any money to pay a fine with. Due to his failure to pay his fine, he was exiled forever from the city of Florence, on pain of being burned at the stake should he show his face within the city limits. Being – understandably – miffed, Dante took his revenge by writing all his political enemies into different realms of Hell and Purgatory in his Divine Comedy.
While it’s unclear whether Dante ever forgave Florence, Florence did forgive Dante: in 2008, the city of Florence overturned his sentence. They had good reason to do so: Not only is one of the city’s most famous sons, he also is one of Italy’s greatest artists. In choosing to write in the vernacular instead of in the academic and poetic standard of Latin, Dante almost single-handedly created the Italian language (by writing it down, he established Italian as a language and not just a dialect spoken by the masses), and certainly cemented its position as a language of art.
Today, the city of Florence loves Dante. He’s everywhere. His books are in more shops than I’d care to describe, his face is plastered all over the place, and restaurants and cafes are named after him. There is also a tiny and incredibly interesting museum dedicated to his Florence.
The Casa di Dante (kah-sah dee dahn-teh; House of Dante) stands where the Alighieri family home supposedly was. Per the city’s records, the Alighieris lived very near to that spot, although it’s unlikely that the building stands in the exact same place as the original house. The streets have changed a bit, even if not much, since the 13th century. Inside, the exhibit describes what Florence would have been like in Dante’s time. There are a few artifacts that may or may not have belonged to Dante (after all, we know very little about him as compared to other writers), but the highlight is definitely the view of the city offered by the signage and displays. There’s one room which explains how a student of history can gauge the political climate in Florence at any given time based on the heights of towers of the city. One of my favorite rooms houses a display of early printings of Dante’s works, complete with illuminated letters, gold leafing, and leather binding. (Another high point: There’s a bookstore on the ground level.)
So, should you ever find yourself wandering around the historical center of Florence, the straightforward path having been lost, take yourself to the Casa di Dante. By the time you’re done in there, you might be ready for the stars.