Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy, to a family of moderate wealth that had a history of involvement in the complex Florentine political scene. Around 1285, Dante married a woman chosen for him by his family, although he remained in love with another woman—Beatrice, whose true historical identity remains a mystery—and continued to yearn for her after her sudden death in 1290. Three years later, he published Vita Nuova (The New Life), which describes his tragic love for Beatrice.
Around the time of Beatrice’s death, Dante began a serious study of philosophy and intensified his political involvement in Florence. He held a number of significant public offices at a time of great political unrest in Italy, and, in 1302, he was exiled for life by the leaders of the Black Guelphs, the political faction in power at the time. All of Dante’s work on The Comedy (later called The Divine Comedy, and consisting of three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) was done after his exile. He completed Inferno, which depicts an allegorical journey through Hell, around 1314. Dante roamed from court to court in Italy, writing and occasionally lecturing, until his death from a sudden illness in 1321.
Dante’s personal life and the writing of The Comedy were greatly influenced by the politics of late-thirteenth-century Florence. The struggle for power in Florence was a reflection of a crisis that affected all of Italy, and, in fact, most of Europe, from the twelfth century to the fourteenth century—the struggle between church and state for temporal authority. The main representative of the church was the pope, while the main representative of the state was the Holy Roman Emperor. In Florence, these two loyalties were represented by the Guelph party, which supported the papacy, and the Ghibelline party, which supported imperial power.
The last truly powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, died in 1250, and by Dante’s time, the Guelphs were in power in Florence. By 1290, however, the Guelphs had divided into two factions: the Whites (Dante’s party), who supported the independence of Florence from strict papal control, and the Blacks, who were willing to work with the pope in order to restore their power. Under the direction of Pope Boniface VIII, the Blacks gained control of Florence in 1301. Dante, as a visible and influential leader of the Whites, was exiled within a year. Dante became something of a party unto himself after his exile. His attitudes were, at times, closer to those of a Ghibelline than a Guelph, so much did he dislike Boniface. The pope, as well as a multitude of other characters from Florentine politics, has a place in the Hell that Dante depicts in Inferno—and not a pleasant one.
Despite the important historical context of the work, Inferno is far from merely a political allegory. Inferno is, for one, the exercise of an astounding intellect that handled writers such as Aristotle, Ovid, Virgil, and Thomas Aquinas with ease and skill. Inferno is also a landmark in the development of European language and literature, for it stands as the greatest medieval poem written in vernacular language—the common tongue of a people.
Critics spanning nearly seven centuries have praised its poetic beauty and compass, virtually unmatched by any other medieval poem. Additionally, medieval Italy was home to scores of regional dialects; Dante’s use of his native Tuscan dialect in The Comedy helped to unify the Italian language, which is rooted in Tuscan more than in any other Italian dialect. Before Dante, major literary works were almost always written in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church; no one had considered the vernacular capable of poetic expression of the caliber of Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Dante acknowledges the seeming folly of such an attempt by entitling his masterpiece The Comedy (the adjective Divine, indicating the religious nature of the work, was added in the sixteenth century).
Obviously, Dante’s choice to call his work a comedy does not mean that the poem is intended to be humorous. Rather, the word comedy refers to one of the two classical styles, the other being tragedy. Tragedy was the high style, the style of epics, with plots that flowed from a promising beginning to a destructive end. Comedy was the low style, the style of grotesque caricatures, with plots that flowed from an unhappy beginning to a happy end.
The title The Comedy is thus appropriate in two ways. First, the poem is written in the vernacular, which was considered appropriate only for a comedy. Second, the plot mirrors the flow of a classical comedy, progressing from the horrors of Hell to the joys of Heaven. Despite his seeming modesty, however, Dante was confident both that his poetry surpassed that of any other vernacular writer and that he could use the high, tragic style to perfection, as he had proved in Vita Nuova. The Comedy is not exclusively “high” or “low”; rather, it is a truly universal work. It deals with one of the great questions of humanity: the existence of an afterlife and the consequences of our lives on Earth. For Dante, this question was worthy of calling upon philosophers and poets alike, and of utilizing every available style, as he does throughout Inferno.