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Dante Alighieri

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1265-1321) Italian poet, one of the five central fathers of the European literary tradition after the fall of Rome, along with Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), François Rabelais, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and William Shakespeare; known primarily for the Commedia (begun circa 1300, mostly written 1313-1321; 1472 as La Comedia di Dante Alleghieri; vt La Divina Commedia 1555). Translations into English of the Inferno – which comprises Book 1 of the whole – are common, though only from the late eighteenth century onwards, beginning with Charles Rogers's translation as The Inferno (1782) [for selected further translations see Checklist below]. The Divine Comedy as a whole first appeared as The Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri, Consisting of the Inferno – Purgatorio – and Paradiso (trans Henry Boyd 1802 3vols), a text suffering from bowdlerizations and rephrasing; many further translations, always as The Divine Comedy, have since appeared. Gustave Doré's illustrations for L'Enfer de Dante Alighieri (trans not identified; graph 1861) have subsequently been reproduced in many contexts. There are numerous verse translations of the Inferno [not listed below]; the whole has also been translated more than once. Recent translations are not listed below, except for the Charles S Singleton prose version, The Divine Comedy (1970-1975 6vols), which is essential for its comprehensive annotations.

The Divine Comedy is an epic narrative poem of 100 cantos in three books, each of 33 cantos, plus an introduction; Book 1 is the Inferno, Book 2 is the Purgatorio and Book 3 is the Paradiso. It has profoundly affected not only the religious imagination but – especially as regards the astonishing architectonic boldness of the Inferno – has proved fundamental to the allegorical creation of imaginary worlds in literature generally. For that reason alone the whole can (with hindsight) be discussed within a broad Proto SF context (although it stands at the head of other traditions much older than the science-fictional); indeed, it is sf in the strict sense, albeit the science is medieval. Its subject is cosmological (see Cosmology) – it offers us in its worlds of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven (and Earth, Sun and stars) a picture of the way the Universe is structured. The obvious objection to such a view is that the work is an allegory whose intentions are theological and philosophical; this may be so, but when Dante wrote there was no distinction between science and Religion as now normally understood, and he did write with the eye of a Scientist, a man of reason of the fourteenth century, transcending the rational but not deserting it. But – as befits an ancestor of Fantastika centuries later – The Divine Comedy must also be understood in terms of its time and place. It is a portrait of a desperately corrupt Italy, as experienced directly by its author, whose banishment from Florence underlies numerous acts of revenge in the text, with enemies and imagined enemies being relegated to the eternal fires of Hell. It also dramatizes a universal drama of Eschatology: the great Empyrean of Heaven is now almost fully occupied, and by the year 1300, the date in which Dante sets his epic, it is essentially too late for the fallen inhabitants of secular Europe to gain salvation. In The Divine Comedy, as in so many of the works it has influenced since, the end is nigh.

As noted, the virtuoso architectonic of The Inferno has permeated Western literature. Some sf texts, however, specifically homage Dante, including Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno (1976) and (at a very different level of emulation with reverence) James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover [omni 1982], being perhaps the most ambitious transliteration of The Divine Comedy as a whole into modern terms. The narrative structure of Adam Roberts's Purgatory Rock (2021) is explicitly based on The Divine Comedy. [PN/JC]

see also: Gods and Demons; Italy; Music.

Dante Alighieri

born Florence, Italy: circa 1 June 1265

died near Ravenna, Italy: circa 14 September 1321

works (highly selected)


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