A Look into Medieval Sensibilities Prose Illuminates Solitary Nature of Dante

Article excerpt

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Vol. 1)

Edited and translated

by Robert M. Durling Oxford University Press 654 pp. $39.95 Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) composed his magnum opus, "The Divine Comedy," during his years of exile from his native Florence, from which he was banished in 1302 never to return (following a trial in absentia over trumped-up charges). Soldier, statesman, poet, scholar, Dante was in many respects a true Renaissance man, yet he also seems to embody the apotheosis of the civilization of the later Middle Ages. His most recent translator, Robert Durling, sees the "Divine Comedy" as the product of a unique moment in intellectual history. Dante's complete portrait of a unified spiritual, physical, and moral cosmos embracing heaven, hell, and purgatory, Durling contends, could only have been achieved before the dissolution of the grand medieval attempt to harmonize the classical philosophy of Aristotle with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The luminously articulated summae of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas are the necessary background for Dante's vividly detailed, intricately conceived vision of realms unseen. Indeed, many scholars have viewed Dante's epic as the grand culmination of medieval culture and civilization. The two-volume anthology "World Masterpieces," under the general editorship of Maynard Mack (W.W. Norton, 1973) places "The Divine Comedy" - along with Boccaccio's "Decameron" and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" - as a masterpiece of the Middle Ages, in contrast to Petrarch (Boccaccio's contemporary), who is classified as a Renaissance figure. But there is also a considerable body of opinion that views Dante as one of the first harbingers of the Renaissance. Jacob Burckhardt's classic study "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" places Dante at the forefront of such Renaissance phenomena as the rediscovery of classical antiquity, a new interest in the natural world, and the flowering of individualism: "Dante, who even in his lifetime was called by some a poet, by others a philosopher, by others a theologian, pours forth in all his writings a stream of personal force, by which the reader, apart from the interest of the subject, feels himself carried away," wrote Burckhardt in 1860. Dante's world is medieval: a pre-Copernican cosmos, with the unmoving earth at the center, heaven above and hell below. In viewing himself, the people he knew, and the historical world from the final perspective of the next world, Dante was continuing the medieval tradition. Yet Dante's way of presenting this world and this perspective is so intensely personal and radically original as to justify classifying this medieval thinker as a Renaissance mind and personality. Dante's originality has almost nothing in common with the originality sought by modern avant-garde artists self-consciously setting out to be innovative or vainly flaunting their idiosyncrasies in the hope of seeming unique. Dante's originality is linked to his firm belief in his ability as an individual to comprehend the divinely created cosmos through the medium of his personal experiences. These experiences include both the events of his life and times and the many books he had read. …