Mark Vernon explores the enduring appeal of Dante
Dante Alighieri has inspired and enthused a remarkable variety of individuals in the 700 years since his death, in September 1321. So is it possible to identify what people find in his work?
It started as soon as he had departed on the journey into the afterlife that he described so vividly in the Divine Comedy. Boccaccio’s Life of Dante, penned in the 1350s, was the first biography and tells a striking tale.
At the time of Dante’s passing, the final 13 cantos of the Paradiso were missing, presumed uncompleted. Then, eight months after his death, Dante came in a dream to his son, Jacopo.
He “was clad in the whitest raiment, and his face shone with unwonted light,” Boccaccio explains, stressing that he had an excellent first-hand witness.
The apparition demonstrated that the cantos did exist. It led Jacopo by the hand to a bedroom and pointed to a spot on the wall, upon which hung an old rug.
The next morning, the matting was lifted and, sure enough, a niche behind it was discovered, that no-one living knew existed. In the niche were the concluding parts of the poem.
“In such wise the poem that had been many years in composition was finished,” Boccaccio reports. It is a work of marvels, marvellously made, by a remarkable poet.
A different kind of inspiration came later in the Renaissance. In 1588, a young Galileo took up the offer to lecture on the physics of the Inferno.
It seems a laughable undertaking now, akin to calculating the age of the Earth from events in the Bible. But this was a transitional time. Numbers of duration, distance and dimension had typically carried qualitative meanings in the Medieval mind.
They were now coming to be taken more exclusively in literal, quantitative ways. Galileo wanted to show that the new science was of value to the humanities.
His lectures were a productive undertaking, too. He derived a principle from his wrestling with the Divine Comedy that is still used by engineers today: the square-cube law. It seems that almost any engagement with Dante yields something of lasting worth.
That discovery has continued into modern times. When Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis in Reading Gaol, he repeatedly turned to Dante for consolation, calling him a “stern master of tenderness” from whom Wilde learnt how “sorrow remarries us to God”. Dante had been forced into exile by his contemporaries and so had the greatest wit and playwright of Victorian England.
Then, in that most terrible place of suffering, the Nazi Camps, Primo Levi recalled the Divine Comedy as well, and found relief. “Think who you are!” he remembered his fellow Italian suggesting. “Followers of worth and knowledge!”
Dante’s powerful realism combined with Primo’s all too real experience. When he came to write If This Is A Man, Primo recalled the moment and how he had heard truth sounding even amidst unthinkable inhumanity.
After the Second World War, Dorothy L Sayers published her English translation of the Divine Comedy. It sold over a million copies. She thought the success stemmed from people having been traumatised by the war. They realised that “the problem of evil, the problem of power” must be addressed. Dante provided the nuance and insight needed.
What is it that has so inspired this variety of individuals?
I think Dante speaks to what the great scholar of mysticism Evelyn Underhill called “the secret of the world, this primal verity”. If you can bring the light of understanding into the darkest realms and not be overcome, and if you can tolerate the radiance of the most wonderful truths and not be overwhelmed, you “transhumanize”, as Dante put it. You become capable of all that human beings are capable of, and that is awesomely, infinitely stirring.
Dante himself described it as “spinning with the love that moves the sun and the other stars”. Even for those for whom the divine vision is not possible, or plausible, the best thing in them is kindled by engaging with Dante. And once that is kindled, it burns and generates heat, joy, light.