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
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
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