Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer, and works with the research group Perspectiva. He has a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy, and degrees in theology and physics. He is the author of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (2019) and Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey (forthcoming, September 2021). He lives in London.
Edited by Marina Benjamin
Dante Alighieri was early in recognising that our age has a problem. He was the first writer to use the word moderno, in Italian, and the difficulty he spotted with the modern mind is its limited capacity to relate to the whole of reality, particularly the spiritual aspects. This might sound surprising, given that his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is often described as one of the most brilliant creations of the medieval imagination. It is taken to be a genius expression of a discarded worldview, not the modern one, from an era in which everything was taken to be connected to the supreme reality called God. But Dante was born in a time of troubling transition. He realised that this cosmic vision was being challenged, and he didn’t seek to reject it or restore it, but to remake it.
The scale of this ambition partly explains why he wrote his three-part narrative journey – through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso) – in Italian, for a mass audience, not just the Latin-reading literati. The Divine Comedy was an instant hit. Hundreds of early manuscripts of the work survive, and people were soon demanding public readings of it. And it has continued to excite the imaginations of more recent poets, from T S Eliot to Clive James, as well as artists from William Blake to my favourite contemporary illustrator, Monika Beisner. Dante takes you somewhere you didn’t previously know. He does that because his epic verse is a self-conscious response to a shifting consciousness with which, in many ways – particularly when it comes to meaning – we are still wrestling.
Dante’s hometown was at the epicentre of the move from the medieval to the modern. Florence was flush with new money as a result of the boom of the 13th century, fed by innovative forms of banking and commerce that seeded capitalism and revolutionised society. It was a crucible of the Renaissance, nurturing artists such as Giotto, who pioneered the painting of individuals with inner lives that we recognise as our own. Dante almost certainly knew Giotto, and he also absorbed the meaning of spiritual movements causing earthquakes across the religious landscape, from the voluntary poverty of the Franciscans, who challenged the exorbitant wealth and power of the church, to the spiritual liberty of the Beguines, a movement of many thousands of women across Europe who claimed social and religious independence so that they could focus their lives on God.
That said, it was not until Dante was halfway through his life that he realised how profoundly significant these various developments were. Born into an old Florentine family, he first became involved in the tumult of politics, which saw the balance of power swing continually between factions representing the papacy and those favouring the empire. He held a number of civic posts, at one point serving as one of the six priors who governed the city. But then, in 1301, Florence was torn apart by the squabbles and warfare, and Dante found himself on the wrong side. He was forced into exile.
Banishment seemed ruinous for the poet who had already established his name as a master of the ‘sweet new style’, because he could no longer widely mingle with native speakers of his beloved dialect. He lost his possessions and contact with his family, too, and knew the bitter pain of walking ‘the stairs of others’ homes’, as he describes the isolation that was to last the rest of his life. But the astonishing verse that he began in or after 1308, and completed the year before his death in 1321, is not only an account of collapse and recovery following a devastating midlife crisis. It is a tale of transfiguration.
The Divine Comedy can be read in numerous ways. Its 14,000 lines explore what is most wonderful and depraved about humanity. They popularised his new verse form, the terza rima, and became seminal in the making of modern Italian. They are also an exploration of the highest aspirations of love. The trembling of the vital spirit that dwells in the secret chamber of the heart, as Dante called it, shook him to the core after a youthful, chaste encounter with a young woman who was probably Beatrice ‘Bice’ di Folco Portinari, the daughter of a successful merchant. She died young at the age of 24, in 1290, but her smile left an undying impression on Dante’s soul. He felt it was a sign, and what he found when he followed its lead is fundamental…