Dante Alighieri

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Purgatorio Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dante Alighieri

Little is known of Dante’s youth, except that he was born into a family that supported Florence’s Guelph political faction. According to autobiographical writings, Dante met a girl named Beatrice Portinari when he was still a child, and he loved her long before he was settled into an arranged marriage with a woman named Gemma Donati, with whom he had several children. As a young man, Dante fought for the Guelphs at the battle of Campaldino in 1289. After the Guelph victory, Dante seems to have taken at least a modest role in Florentine politics. In 1302, as a member of the offshoot known as the White Guelphs, Dante was exiled from Florence, after which he wandered Europe and Italy for a number of years. His interest in poetry and philosophy appears to have deepened as he stepped away from political life, although the exile was always painful for him. It’s unknown where Dante was educated, but his writings reveal that he was familiar with the Tuscan and Provençal poetry traditions as well as classical writings. Dante’s lifelong love for Beatrice from afar (she died in 1290) also reflects the medieval poetic theme of courtly love, which Dante incorporated into his own literary style (which he called the dolce stil novo, or sweet new style). Dante died in Ravenna not long after finishing Paradiso, the last volume of The Divine Comedy.
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Historical Context of Purgatorio

During Dante’s lifetime, Italy wasn’t a unified nation as it’s known today. It was divided into feuding cities and factions—among these were the Guelphs and Ghibellines, whose rivalry features indirectly throughout The Divine Comedy. The conflict between these two factions was a contest between the power of the Roman Catholic papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, respectively. Dante’s family was affiliated with the Guelphs. After the defeat of the Ghibellines, the Guelphs further divided into two factions called the White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. This division mainly centered on the role of the papacy in Florence, with the Black Guelphs more supportive of the Pope (Boniface VIII, at the time) and the White Guelphs desiring greater political freedom from the papacy. After serving as a White Guelph delegate during Pope Boniface VIII’s occupation of Florence, Dante was fined and exiled by the invading Black Guelphs, under threat of execution if he stayed. He never returned to his home city.

Other Books Related to Purgatorio

The theology of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which was completed just before Dante’s lifetime and remains a fundamental Roman Catholic theological text to the present day, pervades The Divine Comedy. In fact, The Divine Comedy has been called “the Summa in verse.” Dante also wrote La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), a collection of sonnets, songs, and prose commentary, which also contains the story of his love for the real-life Beatrice. His other works include a work of political philosophy titled De Monarchia, and an essay titled De vulgari eloquentia, in which he argues that literature written in the vernacular (the language spoken by common people) is just as noble as literature written in Latin (the language used by scholars and the clergy). Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid (written 29–19 B.C.E.), an epic poem giving a legendary history of Rome, was a great influence on Dante’s poetry as well and explains why Virgil himself crops up in The Divine Comedy.
Key Facts about Purgatorio
  • Full Title: Purgatorio
  • When Written: Entire Divine Comedy written c. 1308–1320; Purgatorio likely written by 1319
  • Where Written: Italy
  • Literary Period: Medieval
  • Genre: Narrative Epic Poem; Christian Allegorical Fiction
  • Setting: Purgatory (envisioned as a mountain in the Southern Hemisphere), Easter Sunday through Wednesday, 1300
  • Climax: Dante sees Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.
  • Antagonist: Human Sin
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Purgatorio

Tuscan Triumph. The Divine Comedy was written in a Florentine dialect of Tuscan language. Thanks to the cultural influence of the poem, Tuscan, in turn, became the basis of standard Italian as it is spoken today.

Poetic Pioneer. In The Divine Comedy, Dante pioneered a poetic rhyme scheme called terza rima, which consists of three-line stanzas, each line with 11 syllables apiece. The three-line structure is probably meant to reflect the Holy Trinity.