Dante's Political Purgatory

Dante's Political Purgatory

Dante's Political Purgatory

Dante's Political Purgatory

Excerpt

Dante Political Purgatory was conceived as a whole in two parts: a political biography of Dante Alighieri followed by a detailed analysis of the political thread that runs throughout his Purgatorio. The first part offers something otherwise unavailable in English: a sketch of the poet's experience of politics from his birth in a Guelf commune to his death after twenty years of exile and the way this experience is inextricably bound up with his writings. The latter were for the most part composed during that exile, when Dante virtually never ceased proclaiming the need to accept the divine ordering of the world under God's two representatives on earth, the Pope supreme in the spiritual sphere and the Emperor supreme in the political realm.

The second, major section leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Purgatorio was inspired in large measure by the lesson drawn by the poet from Henry VII's attempts (1310-1313) to restore imperial power and authority in Italy. The lesson of those four years does not imply merely a denunciation of the causes for the failure of Henry's enterprise: it includes the immense hopes aroused in the poet's breast by that same enterprise, which appeared to him as proof that his political ideal was no utopian vision but a para-edenic state that could be realized on earth. Henry's failure stood as a supreme warning to contemporary humanity and its leaders, but it could also be seen as an incitement to abandon the Dark Wood of spiritual and political anarchy and to achieve God's purpose for humanity on earth.

Our understanding of the second cantica of Dante's masterpiece is partial and fragmentary without this historical-political approach. When critics have spoken of Dante Purgatorio as representing a mood of melancholy and nostalgia (e.g., Purg. VIII. 1-6), they have tended to stress the traditional view that the second cantica is the most "human" section of the Comedy, where artists and poets come to the fore. While not denying the element of truth contained in such an appraisal, the present study wishes to redress the critical balance by highlighting the Purgatorio's lifeblood, which is to be found in the desperate desire for purification felt by the poet -- not only as a vital moment in his personal experience of the afterlife but also as a necessary and urgent reformation for the whole of humanity on earth.

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