Dante: Artist in Exile
More than 700 years after Dante Alighieri began writing it in exile, The Divine Comedy still absorbs readers and obsesses artists—and a three-book-long religious poem doesn’t achieve that kind of staying power easily. This map explores the ongoing aftershocks of medieval Italy’s first big literary hit, the epic poem about life, sin, death and the afterlife that takes its readers from the terrifying depths of Hell to the rarefied heights of Paradise.
Despite Dante’s prolific literary output during his 19 years in exile, his life remains a mystery. Biographies, such as Dante scholar and translator Robert Hollander’s, provide little information, and most of what we know about Dante emerges from his work. Indeed, we know more about Dante the pilgrim of The Divine Comedy than about Dante the author.
Critic Erich Auerbach argues in his book Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929) that the story of Jesus effectively installed a binary drama into all human experience; everyone, Auerbach contends, struggles to stay on the righteous path, and is therefore either heroic or tragic. Auerbach considered Dante the pilgrim the first Christian hero. Unmoored from fate and the iron will of the gods that controlled Odysseus, Achilles and other epic heroes, he is scared and ignorant of the world he has entered and must use his wit and will to reach salvation. Dante seems to intentionally make the journey difficult for his fictional alter ego. Not only does he confess his failings in the anguished and awestruck final cantos of Purgatory, he must also confront his friends among the damned.
Exiled from Florence in 1302, Dante spent the rest of his life shuffling from host to host as he worked on the literary and philosophical writings he hoped would restore his reputation. The Divine Comedy reflects Dante’s longing for his home city and his bitterness toward it: All three realms of the afterlife are chock-full of Florentines and other Italians, from Dante’s enemy Filippo Argenti, torn apart and drowning in a river of blood in Hell, to his friend Forese Donati, starving for his former gluttony in the sixth terrace of Purgatory but on his way to salvation. Despite the immediate success of his Comedy, Dante never saw Florence again, and to this day his bones are interred in Ravenna, the city where he died. Florence built a tomb for Dante but has been unsuccessful, since the 1300s, in its attempts to retrieve his remains.
A surprising measure of important work comes to us from artists working in exile. Twentieth-century exemplars include poets Joseph Brodsky, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Ezra Pound; composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; filmmakers Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir; dancer George Balanchine, actor Marlene Dietrich, painter Vasily Kandinsky and writers Samuel Beckett and Thomas Mann.
Beatrice is the woman in Dante’s poem of courtly love, The New Life. She is also the saved soul in The Divine Comedy who, under the aegis of Saint Lucia and the Virgin Mary, convinces Dante to journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Scholars believe Dante may have based her on Beatrice Portinari, a married Florentine woman who died at 24 and was much beloved by Dante. As a spirit guiding him through Paradise, Beatrice is beyond the corporeal love Dante wrote about in The New Life. Dante the hero sometimes finds the space between his former, carnal love of Beatrice and his new, divine love difficult to negotiate—he thinks inappropriate thoughts about a woman who can read his mind.
Dante’s idyllic love for Beatrice influenced the countess Marie d’Agoult in her affair with Franz Liszt. In d’Agoult’s novel Nelida (1846), based on her relationship with the composer, she writes, “The beloved woman in his life was the resplendent Beatrice, pure and unblemished, guiding the poet through celestial regions.” When later in the book the Liszt character dies in his lover’s arms, she is “the answered prayer, forgiver of sins, the Beatrice who ascends into the opened heavens.”
Franz Liszt often created works from literary sources. One of his two multi-movement symphonies is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the other on the early-19th-century tragic drama Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, about a man who sells his soul to the devil. Liszt’s Dante Symphony and the shorter sonata Après Une Lecture du Dante (“After a Reading of Dante”) both address the three-part poem in two sections: “Hell,” in which the music evokes the shrieks of the damned and the violence of their tormentors; and “Purgatory,” in which themes borrowed from liturgical music dramatize the piety of souls on their way to Heaven. After German composer Richard Wagner convinced him no human composition could adequately depict the glories of Paradise, Liszt judged himself incapable of rendering Dante’s final realm in music. American composer Robert W. Smith wasn’t as demure. His Divine Comedy Symphony culminates, as a reader of Dante may expect, with “Paradiso.”
Giovanni Boccaccio, the next great Italian poet after Dante, wrote The Decameron—a catalogue of 100 linked stories occasionally inspired by The Divine Comedy and set during the mid-1300s, when the Black Death swept through Europe. He also wrote the first biography of the Florentine poet, Life of Dante. Most of Boccaccio’s material comes from Dante’s written work, legend and anecdotal evidence provided by Cino da Pistoia, Dante’s friend and Boccaccio’s teacher. Marked by Boccaccio’s adoration of his subject, the book signaled a major shift in the biography genre by tracing its subject’s intellectual journey alongside his life’s historical circumstances.
Dante’s intimate sense of exile and suffering is a hallmark of the Comedy and has been an inspiration to numerous other writers in exile. Whether the condition was state-imposed—as in the case of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who recited Dante’s “Canto of Ulysses” from Inferno to his fellow inmates at Auschwitz—or self-imposed, as with T.S. Eliot, Dante is the literary forebear toiling alone and far from home. American-born Eliot wrote almost all of his major poems in his adopted home of England, including “Ash Wednesday,” which was inspired by Dante and his fellow poet and friend Guido Cavalcanti.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce suggests an artist’s condition is a kind of exile from immediate human experience. Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, mentions the “spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri.” Scholar Howard Helsinger took this as a reference to Stephen’s cold aloofness, as a critic and an artist, from the human connections he longs to make.
Parallels to Dante extend throughout Joyce’s writing and his life. In a review of a selection of Joyce’s work published in the 1940s, Richard Watts Jr. describes the writer’s version of Dublin, his hometown, as a “hearty, bitterly humorous, Gaelic Inferno, with [Leopold] Bloom his foolish, touching and compassionate Virgil.” Like his contemporary T.S. Eliot, Joyce chose to live the rest of his life away from the city where he was raised—writing and teaching in Paris, Switzerland and Italy. Still, Joyce might have been most intimately acquainted not with a literal, physical exile, but with the metaphorical exile from human connection that he considered an artist’s prerogative.
James Joyce is known for his stream-of-consciousness style and writing packed with allusions—including plenty to Dante. Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann named Dante as Joyce’s favorite author. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Joyce had an intimate and early knowledge of The Divine Comedy. He studied Italian and read the Comedy in its original language. While lecturing in Italy during the 12 years he lived there, Joyce called Dante “my spiritual food.”
In his book The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom discusses how immediate precursors produce anxiety in poets, who fear being overshadowed by the earlier achievements. Critics suspect that for modernist writers like Joyce, Eliot, Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound, Dante represented an escape hatch from the influence of the Romantic poets. Indeed, the moderns interpreted the Comedy to reflect their own cosmology and sense of justice. Pound, for example, called his most ambitious and enduring work The Cantos and intended it to encompass everything since Dante. And Pound’s translations of the poems of Arnaut Daniel, a 12th-century Occitan troubadour, were inspired by Dante’s conversation with Daniel’s spirit in Purgatory.
James Joyce alluded to Dante throughout his groundbreaking oeuvre. Postmoderns have taken up the Joycean mantle of intertextuality, and a handful of exemplary writers have used Dante as their primary source text. Monique Wittig’s Across the Acheron, Nick Bantock’s Museum at Purgatory, S.A. Alenthony’s Infernova, Eileen Myles’s Inferno and Kim Paffenroth’s Valley of the Dead all directly appropriate Dante’s poem.
Instead of borrowing Dante’s laurels, American poet Alice Notley examines what these leafy crowns are really made of. Her Descent of Alette reenvisions the Inferno, challenging Dante’s theme of Christian redemption while relocating the action to a city’s dystopian subway system. The poem’s opening directly invokes Dante’s opening: “One day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly.” Notley’s inventive use of quotation marks functions as a way, in her words, to “measure the poem” and to lend it a haunting, halting rhythm—one that echoes Dante’s own descent. Notley’s protagonist journeys through an urban underworld where she learns a new version of the story of the first woman. Like Dante’s pilgrim, Notley’s character must correct her own errant will before she can complete the dangerous task appointed to her. Descent is ultimately Notley’s own epic struggle against patriarchy.