Power Struggles, Malaria, a Hidden Corpse: Dante’s Life Was Weird and His Death Weirder

·8 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Getty

There is a small cluster of people whose accomplishments are so broadly recognized that they are known by a single name: Cher, Madonna, 2Pac, to name a few. This week marks the 700th anniversary of the death of one of them: Dante, the medieval poet known as the “father of the Italian language” and the “Supreme Poet” of Italy. His depictions of heaven, hell, and purgatory have made him one of the most influential poets of all time. Cities fought over his remains and even Pope Francis has described him as a “prophet of hope.” Despite the accolades he receives today, however, his life was marked by heartbreak, pain, and exile.

Dante (full name Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri) was born in Florence, Italy, around 1265. He claimed that he was descended from the Romans, but this is the kind of fiction that wealthy families liked to concoct. At the age of 9, he says, he fell in love, from a distance and at first sight, with his muse and one true love Beatrice Portinari. The relationship was doomed from the start: three years later, at the age of 12, Dante was officially betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati, a member of a powerful banking family. Though he would see Beatrice from a distance and even exchange greetings with her as an adult, they can hardly be said to have been romantically involved. She died at the age of 24, almost certainly unaware of Dante’s feelings for her. Nevertheless, Beatrice has been immortalized by his poetry and in the numerous Pre-Raphaelite paintings devoted to her beauty. Even in heaven, he writes in the Paradiso, he gazes not at the blazing glory of the cosmos, but at her. Poor Gemma, on the other hand, never gets a look in.

Welcome to Hell: A History of Portals to the Underworld

Like most men from affluent Florentine finance families, Dante was automatically drawn into the political divisions that threatened to tear apart the city. Florence was the center of a power struggle between supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Ghibellines) and the Papacy (the Guelphs). Dante’s father, a moneylender, was loyal to the pope. Though the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict was resolved in favor of Dante’s side, Florence soon broke into two factions (the Whites and Blacks) divided about the extent of the Papacy’s influence in the city. By default, Dante was on the side of the “Whites,” who lobbied for greater independence. During a diplomatic mission to the Vatican, Florence was captured on behalf of the “Blacks” and Dante found himself condemned to exile in his absence and ordered to pay a large fine. The fine was never paid (in part because his assets had been seized) and Dante lived out his life in exile.

It was Beatrice’s death that first prompted Dante to throw himself into Latin literature and, eventually, begin his most famous work: The Divine Comedy. He composed the trilogy in exile between 1308 and 1321. It is one of literature’s behemoths: at 14,233 lines it is longer than Homer’s Odyssey (though 1500 lines shorter than the Iliad). The poem begins in the Inferno in hell, ascends through purgatory, and culminates in the Paradiso with a vision of the divine in heaven.

The poem is written in a terza rima style in which each stanza, or verse, is divided into three lines. The first and third lines rhyme with one another while the second line anticipates and rhymes with the first and third lines of the following verse (e.g. aba, bcb, etc). The impact of the poem on the Italian language and literature more broadly cannot be understated. T. S. Eliot pronounced that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them” and others claimed that they could not understand Shakespeare until they read Dante.

Despite his ingenuity and lasting influence, Dante was hardly the first to write a tour of the afterlife. His source for many of the punishments found in hell was the Apocalypse of Paul, an early Christian text that weaves together classical stories about the underworld (think Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill) with Christian morality and scripture. The Aeneid, which includes a detailed tour of the underworld, was an important part of his own conception of his work: he even had his ‘ancestor’ Virgil serve as his subterranean tour guide in the Inferno.

It was in his fictional underworld that Dante had his revenge. He populates the eighth circle of hell with all species of fraud and malicious conduct. Here we find sorcerers, false prophets, hypocrites, thieves, alchemists, seducers, and flatterers. Among them are simonists—those who sold religious privileges—who are buried head-down in the muck. Dante encounters here an inverted Pope Nicholas III, who mistakes him for Pope Boniface VIII. Apparently, both Boniface (who had been partly responsible for Dante’s exile by supporting the Blacks in Florence) and Clement V were expected there at some point. Pope Clement V may have accepted bribes, but he also founded the vineyards where the Rhône wine Châteauneuf-du-Pape is grown so he wasn’t all bad.

Nicholas and Boniface aren’t the only real-world characters in the Divine Comedy. Pope Celestine V, the first pope to resign before Benedict XVI, finds himself in the domain of the Uncommitted, being stung by hornets and wasps and eaten alive by insects. Julius Caesar and the virtuous non-Christian philosophers and mathematicians reside in the comparatively cushy Limbo.

If you are wondering how the Roman Catholic Church feels about the hell-bound portrayal of some of their sainted popes, the answer may surprise you. Dante was a devoted Catholic and subsequent popes have recognized his talent and piety. On the 600th anniversary of his death Pope Benedict XV described his work as “vital nourishment” for souls. Pope Paul VI saw his writings as a tool for the evangelization of the church.

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Dante’s popularity means that in the 700 years since his death numerous Italian constituencies have fought for control of his memory and remains. As Guy Raffa charts in his beautiful book Dante’s Bones, Dante’s corporeal afterlife is its own story. The death mask of Dante that features on the cover of Dan Brown’s Inferno, and is held in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, is probably not the real deal. Measurements of Dante’s skull taken in 1921 reveal that his nose was quite different from the aquiline shape you see in portraits and the plaster copy on display. Recent work on this suggests that the famous face of Dante was carved over 160 years after his death.

The beautiful tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence is actually empty. Dante died of malaria in Ravenna in 1321 and though Florence asked for his remains to be returned to his birthplace, they were rebuffed. When the Medici (and, thus, Florentine) Pope Leo X sent a delegation to Ravenna in 1513 to retrieve the bones, the Franciscan friars hid Dante’s body in the wall of their monastery. The biggest threat to Dante’s remains came during World War II, when the fascist leader and Dante-fan Mussolini (he exchanged copies of the Comedy with Hitler) schemed to bring the bones first to a special-purpose built ‘Danteum’ in Rome and then to his Alpine valley stronghold.

There’s no denying Dante’s importance and influence; he has played a role in shaping Italian self-definition, Italian language, and English literature. Even American Puritan and preacher Jonathan Edwards got in on the act. But should we, like the popes, read Dante for moral instruction? Hell-expert, and author of the recently released Hell Hath No Fury (Yale, 2021) Meghan Henning told me that this depends on who you are. Dante, like other hell tourists and fantasists, she said, has a particular interest in punishing women. “Stories like this unfortunately do more harm than good. Dante has been extolled for his poetry and had an enormous impact on our culture, but I think we have to ask ourselves whether the ideas of justice and the body that we read in his pages are really ‘just’ when those ideas are built upon the subjugation of women, the disabled, and the enslaved.”

This doesn’t always mean that reading Dante means reading with the oppressor. Stories like this can be a way to grapple with issues of justice, added Henning. As Dennis Looney has written, long before Dante was embraced by the New England literati, W. E. B. Du Bois used him to debate the values of proper education for African Americans. Dante resurfaced as an expression of militant identity in the work of Black activists like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and inspires the central characters of Gloria Naylor’s novel Linden Hills.

Perhaps the real take-away here is that if you choose to join the literary pilgrims who pay homage to Italy’s “Supreme Poet” make sure you’re headed to the right tomb.

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