Historical Context for The Divine Comedy by Dante
Dante lived in a time of great and tumultuous change in his native Florence and in the Italian peninsula as a whole. There was no unified Italy to speak of in the 13th-14th century. Indeed, when Dante speaks of Italy in the Divine Comedy, he speaks of an ideal that would not be realized until the eventual unification of the country’s various regions in 1861.
The city of Florence was growing tremendously with regard to commerce and influence but was rife with factional violence and political conflict. The divide between Guelfs and Ghibellines, with the former supporting the pope and the latter supporting the emperor, was initially the primary distinction within Florentine politics but the defeat of the Ghibellines in the battle of Colle di Val d’Elsa in1269 put Florence under Guelf control. A division emerged within this party, leading to the formation of the White Guelfs, who desired a return of the emperor, and the Black Guelfs, who remained unflinching in their support of the papacy.
With the passing of the Ordinances of Justice in 1294, prominent noble families of the city were barred from government and only those who belonged to a professional or artisanal guild were permitted to seek public office. This class distinction further divided the Blacks and Whites, with the former opposed to the participation of lower classes in government. Dante engages with these political and commercial issues both in his life and in his poetry. His election as one of the six priors of Florence in 1300, the highest public office in the city, reflects the extent of his involvement in government. However, Dante’s political affiliation cost him his home when the Black Guelfs returned to power and, with the support of Pope Boniface VIII, exiled the poet in 1301. We find Florentine politics and society and the relationship between Church and Empire a constant presence in the narrative of the Divine Comedy, whether in the form of prominent Florentines and popes condemned in hell or invective and lament at the state of the city and the poet’s unjust exile.
The itinerary of Dante’s exile in a sense reflects the state of affairs in the rest of the Italian peninsula, with just about each city constituting a separate political entity. Dante traveled from city to city, initially in the interest of obtaining military support for a return of the White Guelfs to power in Florence but eventually settling for a presence in the court of certain signori (political and military leaders) such as the Malaspina family in Lunigiana, Cangrande della Scala in Verona, and finally Guido Novello of Ravenna. It was through the patronage of such individuals that Dante was able to devote himself to his intellectual and poetic pursuits.
Written by Akash Kumar, Italian Department, Columbia University
Cambridge Companion to Dante. Rachel Jacoff, ed. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Gorni, Guglielmo. Dante. Storia di un visionario. Bari: Laterza, 2008
The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Peter Brand and Lino Pertile, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996