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Dolce stil nuovo: 13th century

The earliest poetry in the Italian language is written at the court of Frederick II in Sicily. Love poems in particular are popular, inspired by the troubadours in Provence.

These Sicilian poems are admired and imitated in northern Italy, where an important new development takes place. The poets of the north adopt a less flowery style, using simple Italian to express the emotion of love. This trend is given a name by its most famous practitioner, who calls it the dolce stil nuovo ('sweet new style'). The phrase is Dante's.

Dante is not the first northern poet to write in the dolce stil nuovo. Indeed he is among the younger members of a group following the example of Guido Guinizelli, a poet of Bologna. Growing up in Florence, Dante is himself particularly influenced by a Florentine poet of the school, Guido Cavalcanti, some ten years his senior.

But however distinguished his predecessors, the most famous poems in the new style are in Dante's first work, the Vita Nuova. They describe his love for Beatrice.

Beatrice and the Vita Nuova: c.1274-1293

When he is nine, Dante meets a girl who dazzles him with her beauty. She is Beatrice Portinari, a year younger than himself. Nine years later he meets her again - a chance encounter which leaves him 'as if intoxicated'. His obsession grows, always at a distance, until - when the poet is twenty-five - he is devastated by news of her death. Some three years later, in about 1293, he writes a prose account of his increasingly idealized love. He uses it as a setting for thirty-one poems in praise of Beatrice, written between 1283 and 1291.

This work is La Vita Nuova ('New Life'). At its end Dante derives consolation from imagining Beatrice in heaven. But he decides to write no more about her until he can do so in the manner which she deserves.

Dante, politician and exile: 1295-1307

Among the violent political factions of Florence it is hard for anyone of talent to stand aside. Dante is a member of the city council from 1295. He is soon heavily involved in diplomacy on behalf of Florence's White faction. He is away from Florence on one such mission, in 1301, when the city is seized by the Blacks.

In the ensuing persecution of the Whites, Dante is sentenced to two years of exile and a fine of 5000 florins. Failing to pay the fine, he is sentenced in 1302 to death. He lives another nineteen years but never returns to his beloved city.

In his years of exile Dante wanders, in relative poverty, from city to city. He reads and studies and undertakes ambitious projects. The Convivio ('banquet') is intended to be a feast of philosophical knowledge in fifteen books. De vulgaria eloquentia sets out to anlayze in four volumes the proper literary use of Italian - a theme of great importance to Dante and his circle, whose works eventually elevate their native Tuscan dialect to the status of 'correct' Italian for the entire peninsula.

These projects remain unfinished. But Dante's work on them can be seen as preparation for an even greater undertaking. In about 1307 he lays them aside and begins the Commedia.

Divine Comedy: 1307-1321

Dante gives his epic trilogy the simple title Commedia ('Comedy'), on the grounds that unlike tragedy it starts badly and ends well. Two or three centuries later his admirers add the word which now provides its familiar title - Divina Commedia, 'Divine Comedy'.

The vast work is written in three-line stanzas known as terza rima ('third rhyme'), in which the first line of each stanza rhymes with the third; the middle line gives the first rhyme of the next stanza, to give a rhyming pattern aba, bcb, cdc etc. Dante's poem is arranged in 100 cantos, one as the prologue and 33 in each of three sections - Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. The total number of lines is 14,233.

The structure of the poem follows Dante's journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. It mirrors the path of a soul towards God. The quest ends with the poet enjoying a brief and sublime experience of the central Christian mysteries - the three-in-oneness of the Trinity, and the duality of Christ as man and God.

The details seen by the poet on his journey have given the Commedia its lasting appeal. Inevitably the most memorable incidents are the torments suffered by evil characters from history, vividly described by Dante as he descends through nine successive circles of Hell to discover Lucifer (or Satan himself) at the very bottom.

The torments of Hell are familiar to Dante's contemporaries in stone above the doorways of cathedrals. But in his poetry they come alive with a wealth of detail impossible in sculpture.

Those in eternal pain include illicit lovers (Paolo and his sister-in-law Francesca da Rimini, overwhelmed by passion when reading together a tale of Lancelot and Guinevere), gluttons and misers, murderers and suicides, heretics, sorcerers, traitors and assassins (particularly Brutus and Cassius, considered by Dante so heinous that they join Judas Iscariot in being gnawed by the three heads of Lucifer himself).

Dante's guide through these fascinating horrors is Virgil, whose Aeneid (in which the hero journeys from Troy to Rome) is partly a model for the Commedia. Virgil also takes the poet through Purgatory, with its seven terraces - each concerned with one of the seven deadly sins, expiated by the souls on their progress towards Paradise.

Virgil, as an unbaptized pagan, may not enter Paradise. At the summit of the mountain of Purgatory, Virgil hands Dante over to Beatrice who has descended from Paradise to greet him. Now at last the poet is ready to write about his beloved in the elevated manner which her spiritual beauty deserves.

Echoing the nine descending levels of the Inferno, Paradise consists of nine ascending circles. They are followed by a tenth heaven where the blessed dwell in the presence of God. After guiding Dante through the nine circles, Beatrice returns to her own seat of glory in heaven.

Dante, who now needs a special dispensation, is taken in hand by the most political of medieval saints. St Bernard intercedes on the poet's behalf with the Virgin Mary. She arranges for him to enjoy a brief but intense intuition of the Christian mysteries. This is the consummation and profoundly happy end of the comedy. Shortly after finishing the Paradiso Dante dies, in 1321, in Ravenna.

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