Through his work, Dante wants to reshape the world’s view on some of the most important issues.
The Divine Comedy is an example of poetry’s world-creating power. It is an example, how a single poet can engage with the world and reform it, not just represent it, through the power of the poetic imagination that was driven by his spiritual, existential, and political exile. In medieval times, while Dante was writing La Comedia and after his death, the Divine Comedy was viewed as an attempt to reconcile theological doctrine, classical and medieval sources, and popular tradition, with Dante’s poetic need to tell a dramatic story involving difference, variation, growth, and conflict.
In the modern times, the Divine Comedy is mostly viewed as a work that helped to shape the Tuscan language, cultural concepts of life after death, and a great work of poetic art in general.
However, a poem about the afterlife can be theologically sound for its historical time period and have long-lasting significance at the same time if it touches upon the same topics that are a concern both at the medieval and modern times.
For example, the separation of church and state was an issue 700+ years ago in Italy (with Pope Boniface VIII), about 100 years ago in the United States (and when John F. Kennedy was elected), and, for example, it still is an issue in Russia. For Dante, Pope Boniface VIII was a personal and public enemy.
Boniface’s pontificate was marked by a consolidation and expansion of church power, based on the view that the pope was not only the spiritual head of Christendom but also superior to the emperor in the secular, temporal realm. Dante, by contrast, firmly held that the pope and emperor should be co-equals with a balance of power between the pope’s spiritual authority and the emperor’s secular authority.
In Canto XVI of Purgatory, Marco Lombardo articulates Dante’s view of the Empire and Papacy as separate, autonomous institutions. “For Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns; and they made visible two paths – the world’s path and the pathway that is God’s. Each has eclipsed the other; now the sword has joined the shepherd’s crook; the two together must of necessity result in evil, because, so joined, one need not fear the other” (Purgatory, Canto XVI, lines 106-111). Dante’s model of ‘two suns,’ each deriving its authority directly from God, challenges the medieval Christian notion of the pope as ‘sun’ and the emperor as ‘moon’, which is based on the Old Testament, with the lesser sphere wholly dependent on the greater sphere for its authority and influence. It is clear that Dante is very critical of the Christian corruption. The higher the position in the church, the more critical Dante gets, even though he genuinely respects church as an institution. Nowadays, people are less critical about the separation of church and state, but in some countries, the church is overpowering the political fractions because of the immense desire to be wealthy that the supreme clergy had.
Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante the author brings up his political views in the sixth canto of each canticle, which makes it easy to track the major shifts in Dante’s perception of the world. Every time Dante the author discusses politics, he almost complains how bad the government and the church is and what or who could have the power to fix it. However, as the Divine Comedy progresses, Dante the author’s worldview widens, for he is traveling a lot while in exile. As Dante the author travels, his anger and resentment from the exile calm down, and Dante starts seeing the bigger picture, which he envelopes from canticle one to canticle three. In the first canticle, the Inferno, Dante the character hears a prophecy from a sinner Ciacco in the circle of gluttony. In his prophecy, Ciacco tells Dante about the political strife between the Blacks and Whites (meaning the Guelphs and the Ghibellines who had different views on how much power should Pope have compared to the Emperor). First, the Whites will win a battle, then the Blacks will win with the help of Pope Boniface VIII (who the Blacks supported) and drive many of the Whites into exile, including Dante. “Two men are just, but no one listens to them.
Three sparks that set on fire every heart are envy, pride, and avariciousness” (Inferno, Canto VI, lines 75-75). In the second canticle, the Purgatory, Dante the character discusses the problems of Italy and lack of a good ruler. “Squalid Italy, search round your shores and then look inland – see if any part of you delight in peace. What use was there in a Justinian’s mending your bridle, when the saddle’s empty? Indeed, were there no reins, your shame were less. Ah you – who if you understood what God ordained, would then attend to things devout and in the saddle surely would allow Caesar to sit – see how this beast turns fierce because there are no spurs that would correct since you have laid your hands upon the bit!” (Purgatorio, Canto VI, lines 85-96).
In Canto VI of Paradiso, Dante and Virgil meet Justinian, who Dante was talking about in Canto VI of Purgatorio. There, Justinian discusses with Dante the character the position of the Empire in the world, its inner conflicts, and the destiny and career of the Roman Eagle. “Abd when the Lombard tooth bit Holy Church, then Charlemagne, under the Eagle’s wings, through victories he gained, brought help to her. Now you can judge those I condemned above, and judge how such men have offended, have become the origin of all your evils” (Paradiso, Canto VI, lines 94-99). All that has been discussed in the Divine Comedy, especially in prophecies from many souls. By Canto XXV of Paradiso, Dante the character is full of hope and love and has no issues being exiled. In Canto XXV of Paradiso, Dante the character utters the hope that he returns to Florence to take the poetic hat, which shows his conviction that the poet is genuine if the frustrated desire was to see the end of his exile.
At the root of Divine Comedy, love is salvation and a true way to happiness, ennobling someone and making them better. However, if love is directed towards something wrong or if love is in excess towards that wrong, it can bring one down and make people vain, and, ultimately, insane. The best example of how wrong or excessive love drives people insane is the example of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who was sent to prison and then to Hell for a series of betrayals against Pisa and her political leadership. Ugolino’s story is the longest single speech made by one of the damned. His story is Dante’s final dramatic representation in the Inferno of humankind’s capacity for evil and cruelty.
Ugolino’s story, which is originally aimed at explaining why he is gnawing on someone’s head, is all the more powerful because the speaker does not even try to pardon himself of the crime for which he is condemned to eternal damnation. He instead wishes to defame his enemy and elicit compassion from his audience by recounting the brutal manner in which he and his innocent children were killed.