“Everything I understand, I understand only because I love.”
“To love is to receive a glimpse of heaven.”
In every single city and town in Italy, you will find a street named “Via Dante”.
At first it seems puzzling. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was not a king or ruler of any kind. He didn’t fight in any major battles, and he was a miserable failure at politics (he even got kicked out of his beloved Florence for it). Dante was nothing more nor less than a writer.
But Dante is arguably the most famous man Italy has produced (and the one Italians are most proud to call their own). He is often called by us English speakers the “Italian Shakespeare”, but as a writer and poet, Dante has no equal and no parallel.
By far his most famous and enduring work is his Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), a work made up of three parts chronicling Dante’s mystical tour of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and ultimately – Heaven (Paradiso).
There are many reasons why his magnum opus is considered great – it was written in Tuscan Italian instead of latin (the common literary language), which laid the foundations for modern Italian. It’s a grand collection and embellishment of all the Catholic Church’s teachings concerning the afterlife. It’s the Who’s-Who of the medieval world, with Dante placing all VIPs, friends, enemies, courtiers, nobles, and even men of the church where he saw fit (spoiler: most end up in hell). It was an instant bestseller when it was published, and rocked Europe with its originality.
But what would push Dante to write such a work?
It was the love of a woman.
Beatrice Portinari was a noblewoman who grew up in Florence, probably not too far from where Dante himself lived. He first saw her when he was but 9 years old (she was more or less the same age) in church. Dante loved everything about her – her loveliness, her sparkling personality, her calm presence. But to his enduring shame, he suffered from crippling shyness in her presence and couldn’t bring himself to talk to her.
But Dante never really had a chance anyway, poor guy. At the time, it was common for marriages to be arranged at an insanely young age, and Dante was betrothed to another woman at the age of 12. Beatrice, too, was promised to another family, and all Dante could do was watch her from afar.
One time, after both their marriages, Beatrice stopped to talk to him in the street. It was one of the happiest moments in his life.
But tragedy struck early.
Beatrice fell sick and died at the young age of 24. Dante was heartbroken.
In the face of his anguish, Dante did the one thing he could do: he wrote. For the rest of his life, Dante would write poem after poem dedicated to his Beatrice. Then Dante made her the great fixture and catalyst in the story of the Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy
The story opens with Dante one day taking a stroll through the forest. He is minding his own business when three monsters appear out of nowhere and start to chase him as he flees for his life. Right when the monsters are about to pounce and eat him, the spirit of the great Roman poet Virgil appears and drives them off.
“How did you know to come find me?” Dante asks.
“Your hot babe Beatrice sent me,” Virgil says (I may or may not have paraphrased that).
Turns out Beatrice had been watching Dante the whole time, and sent rescue in the nick of time. As she tells Dante through Virgil:
“I am Beatrice who send you on; I come from where I most long to return; Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.” (Inferno, Canto II, Lines 70-72)
And so commences the epic journey Dante makes through the 9 circles of hell, 7 terraces of purgatory, and the 9 spheres of heaven, spurred ahead by his love for Beatrice. And at each step, Beatrice – his light at the end of the tunnel – urges him onward and upward by her love.
Even while flying through heaven’s many spheres, Dante pauses in his narrative to dwell on the stirrings of his passion for Beatrice. It’s quite clear that he is just as twitterpated by her as always:
“Then Beatrice looked at me with eyes so full of sparks of love, eyes so divine that my own force of sight was overcome, took flight, and, eyes downcast, I almost lost my senses.” (Paradiso, Canto IV, ln 139-142)
“…even as I gazed at her, my soul was free from any other need” (Paradiso, XVIII, 14-15)
As they near heaven, Dante’s love for her grows. Eventually they complete their ascent past the angels of heaven towards God, together.
If that’s not romantic, I don’t know what is.
As Dante journeys through all possibilities of the afterlife, he learns that Love is truly the deciding factor. Just as Beatrice said: Love is what prompts us – Love is the great motivator, the catalyst to bring about great good, to direct us heavenward.
At its best and truest, Love draws each of us to God’s throne, teaching us to comprehend who He is and our relationship to Him.
That’s where Dante and Beatrice stood and contemplated. The very last lines of Paradiso (the third and final book of the Divine Comedy) find Dante standing before the blazing glory of God’s presence, struggling to find understanding. And it comes: in searching for how man is made in God’s image, Dante discovers that that knowledge comes by “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
“God is love” says the Bible. And all I can say is that if man is created in His image, I guess that means that we (at our best) must be too.
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