Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is Italy's greatest poet and also one of the towering figures in western European literature. He is best known for his monumental epic poem, La commedia, later named La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy). This great work of medieval literature is a profound Christian vision of man's temporal and eternal destiny. On its most personal level, it draws on the poet's own experience of exile from his native city of Florence; on its most comprehensive level, it may be read as an allegory, taking the form of a journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise. The poem amazes by its array of learning, its penetrating and comprehensive analysis of contemporary problems, and its inventiveness of language and imagery. By choosing to write his poem in Italian rather than in Latin, Dante decisively influenced the course of literary development. Not only did he lend a voice to the emerging lay culture of his own country, but Italian became the literary language in western Europe for several centuries. In addition to poetry Dante wrote important theoretical works ranging from discussions of rhetoric to moral philosophy and political thought. He was fully conversant with the classical tradition, drawing for his own purposes on such writers as Virgil, Cicero, and Boethius. But, most unusual for a layman, he also had an impressive command of the most recent scholastic philosophy and of theology. His learning and his personal involvement in the heated political controversies of his age led him to the composition of De monarchia, one of the major tracts of medieval political philosophy.
Dante's La Divina Commedia was written c. 1310-14 and has three major sections--Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso--the narrative traces the journey of Dante from darkness and error to the revelation of the divine light, culminating in the Beatific Vision of God. Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, who represents the epitome of human knowledge, from the dark wood through the descending circles of the pit of Hell (Inferno). Passing Lucifer at the pit's bottom, at the dead-centre of the world, Dante and Virgil emerge on the beach of the island mountain of Purgatory. At the summit of Purgatory, where repentant sinners are purged of their sins, Virgil departs, having led Dante as far as human knowledge is able, to the threshold of Paradise. There Dante is met by Beatrice, embodying the knowledge of divine mysteries bestowed by Grace, who leads him through the successive ascending levels of heaven to the Empyrean, where he is allowed to glimpse, for a moment, the glory of God.
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.