Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on Sept. 14, 1321, just one year after completing the Divine Comedy. The years leading up to his death were tumultuous, marked by a long exile from his home city of Florence, which was punishment for being on the losing side of a power struggle that involved familial and political infighting among elite Florentines, with tensions heightened by the exertion of outside influence from those as high up as Pope Boniface VIII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg.
Dante’s Florentine enemies seized his assets and accused him of having committed crimes during the brief stint he served as city prior. He was ordered to pay a large fine and refused, not only because he was broke but because he proclaimed his innocence and decried the punishment as unjust. He was banished from Florence in 1302, and his punishment was eventually inflated to a death sentence, promised to be carried out were he to ever return to the city; and this sentence was imposed on his sons as well.
It was during this period of exile at the end of his life that Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, a work that draws on his personal suffering by juxtaposing the hell of exile from God with the joy of communion found in heaven. In the Divine Comedy, the sorrow that pervades Dante’s exile from Florence is revealed when the character Dante, who is a younger version of himself, encounters an ancestor who predicts his future, saying,
“You shall be forced to leave behind those things
you love most dearly and this is the first
arrow the bow of your exile will shoot.
And you will know how salty is the taste
of others’ bread, how hard the road that takes
you down and up the stairs of others’ homes.”
In his apostolic letter Splendor of Light Eternal, honoring the seventh centenary of Dante’s passing, Pope Francis relates the poet’s exile to his creation of the Divine Comedy, writing, “In exile, Dante’s love for Florence, betrayed by the ‘iniquitous Florentines,’ was transformed into bittersweet nostalgia. His deep disappointment over the collapse of his political and civil ideals, together with his dreary wanderings from city to city in search of refuge and support are not absent from his literary and poetic work; indeed, they constitute its very source and inspiration.”
In his letter, Francis references his predecessors who have honored Dante over the years, such as Pope Paul VI, who once called the poet’s work a plea for peace, writing, “The Divine Comedy is a poem of peace: the Inferno a dirge for peace forever lost, the Purgatorio a wistful hymn of hope for peace, and the Paradiso a triumphant anthem of peace fully and eternally possessed.”
Through the experience of an unjust exile, Dante came to understand that peace could never come about without justice, which is why he depicts an afterlife where the seeds we sow in life for good and for ill are accounted for. The difference between the souls in Dante’s hell and those in his purgatory is that the souls in hell suffer in obstinacy, while the souls in purgatory embrace the purifying nature of their trial and utilize it to grow closer to God.
Though Dante’s sense of justice leads him to condemn important figures of his time, figures of history and even those of legend, the Divine Comedy should not be read with a focus on the judgment of the souls of those characters, because those characters are only utilized to exemplify certain common human failings. We read Dante to understand ourselves. We read Dante to understand the nature of human action and where our actions lead, especially as it pertains to the cultivation of our character and the stewardship of our souls.
While Dante grappled with understanding God’s justice, he knew it was rooted in love and in the mercy of Christ. This is why he defied expectations of the time by showing the pagan Roman emperor Trajan in heaven for a famous gesture of charity done for an impoverished woman. Analyzing Dante’s reason for honoring Trajan and for defying expectations in other instances, Pope Francis writes, “God’s mercy always offers the possibility of change, conversion, new self-awareness and discovery of the path to true happiness.”
The quest for conversion from a desire to achieve worldly goals to the goal of communion with God is the driving force behind Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and finally to heaven, where he arrives before the beatific vision. Recognizing Christ as the great mystery at the center of the divine, he is left with an overwhelming impression that points to the meaning of that mystery. Unable to fully grasp the image before him, he reacts to it, internalizing the experience and revealing not just a witness of our connection to the divine through Christ, but a share in that connection. Of the encounter, Dante concludes:
“At this point power failed
but, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,
I felt my will and my desire impelled
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Pope Francis calls Dante a “prophet of hope” because he “sublimated and transformed his personal experience, making it a paradigm of the human condition, viewed as a journey— spiritual and physical—that continues until it reaches its goal.”
Dante always dreamed of returning to Florence and being honored with the poet’s laurel for his achievements as an artist. Yet, in channeling the suffering of exile into a universal expression of longing for heaven, Dante was blessed to realize a new goal in his vision of the order of God’s plan to bring peace to the human soul.
Dante never returned to Florence and died after nearly 20 years in exile. He was buried in Ravenna, and in 1483 a tomb was erected with the inscription “parvi Florentia mater amoris,” which translates to, “Florence, mother of little love.”
But after his death, Florence reclaimed Dante, lobbying to have his remains returned to the city and pressing so hard that at one point the custodians of his tomb at Ravenna felt compelled to hide his bones in the wall of a monastery.
In 2008, the leaders of Florence issued an official apology on behalf of the city for the exile of Dante so many years before. Earlier this year, in honor of the 700th anniversary of his passing, Florence held a re-trial of Dante to clear his name of the false accusations that led to his exile.
Today, an empty tomb dedicated to Dante sits at Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce, symbolizing the city’s penance for the wrong done to him and the hope of his return. An inscription on that tomb reads, “Onorate l'altissimo poeta,” meaning, “Honor the most exalted poet.”