Dominique Liana Russo

November 27, 1998


Self versus State: Fall Semester 1998


The Aftermath of Dante Alighieri: His Influence of Society from Niccolò Machiavelli to Robin Williams


In China it is believed that the slight breeze from the movement of a butterflyís wing may result in a torrential hurricane in the west. This ancient belief attests to the existence of what we know as a chain reaction, and the consequences it is capable of in nature, or in our particular case study, an established society. In the year 1308, the butterfly became restless once again with the publication of Danteís Divina Commedia. This commentary, steeped in artistic similes and beautifully discrete spears, brutally exposed the evils of the current Florentine society and Roman Catholic Church like none before. As a side effect, Divina Commedia planted a seed of restlessness into the city of Florence that eventually effected Dante's political descendants such as Niccolò Machiavelli, the city of Florence, and eventually would affect great numbers of people throughout history. As a matter of fact, great works of art by the legendary Salvador Dalì would not have been created, the popular interpretation of hell even in 1998 would not be the same, and Niccolò Machiavelli would not have documented his thoughts to write his legendary book, The Prince without Dante Alighieriís contribution to his writing, intellect and controversial views. Alighieri had the vision to write a piece that would directly effect his current society, as well as have strong repercussions even today. Dante Alighieri and his Butterfly, the Divina Commedia, both have had a gale force to be reckoned with.

Dante Alighieri's life was influenced not unlike most during his time; it was greatly influenced by the existence of the Roman Catholic Church as it was arguably the single most influential institution in the world since its onset in approximately 30 A.D. During the time of Dante Alighieri however, the church was the major force in politics, economics, and society. As Danteís life matured, and he found himself in the service of religious officers who figuratively and literally cut each other's throats to gain status. This succeeded in shaping his negative view of the church as an organization. As Danteís life led him into the realm of politics, and through his political service Boniface VIII, Dante was able to get a first hand view of how the church was effectively able to manipulate political and socioeconomic situations, and how his society was affected negatively by the church officersí desire for status and power. One of the most outspoken believers in the separation of church and state, Alighieri, now disillusioned with the church as well as Italyís political situation, created an effective weapon to expose the affairs at hand as well as shape the view of a whole society. His weapon wasnít forged at the stone with fire and iron; instead his weapon was his poetry; La Divina Commedia-phrased in the literary structure known as terza rima.

Durante Alighiero known to us as Dante Alighieri was born of a Guelph family in the spring of 1265 in Florence, Italy. His family was modestly noble. This enabled Dante to become politically active in Florence, but not to the point of being immune from exile. Dante became active in a political dispute between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, who were fighting for control of Florence. A political faction of the Guelphs which did not hold much favor for Dante, eventually won control of Florence in 1302 and exiled him; later with the promise of death if he should return. Dante relied on the goodwill of others upon his exile, and started to draft the Commedia which exactly this by Dante because it has a happy ending. Later it was dubbed the Divina Commedia, not by Dante, but by his readers years after his death. Dante worked on the Commedia from 1308 to 1321; he completed the work very near his death.

It would be logical to worry about oneís own personal safety when writing such a book filled with personal criticisms (in Danteís example, it was seemingly viewed as an exposé), whether it be versed in similes or not.

Even in our modern global society there remains a prime example for this possibility. In 1988, a man named Salman Rushdie wrote a fiction book called Satanic Verses; a publication which was subsequently banned in India and Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwah against Rushdie, offering millions for his death. Even in 1998, it hasnít been forgotten.

For nearly a decade, Salman Rushdie has been a symbol of freedom of speech under attack. But last week, the author celebrated the apparent end of "a dreadful terrorist threat." Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, declared that Iran has "no intention, nor is it going to take any action whatsoever, to threaten the life of the author of The Satanic Verses," the 1988 novel in which Rushdie allegedly blasphemed Islam.

Yet there was reason for caution. In 1989, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, condemning Rushdie to death. Technically it remains in effect, because Iranian officials say they cannot reverse a religious ruling by Khomeini. An Iranian foundation also continues to offer a $2.5 million bounty on Rushdie's head, and Iranian hard-liners who dislike the current government's modest opening to the West still want to see Rushdie dead. (

Why would Danteís Alighieri risk putting himself in this position at a time that was notorious for its harsh methods of punishment? Simply put, he didnít. There are many reasons why Dante was not daunted by society when writing La Divina Commedia.

Dante was already well known by the academe and the politicos for his writings. He had already published Vita Nuova which was a libello, or a small book of poetry which expressed his love for Beatrice and his struggle with her death. He had also published other works as the Convivio, written upon his exile. Later, he wrote a book called De Vulgari Eloquentia. Even though this book was written in Latin, it discussed the need for one common poetry language and made a proposal against Latin. Dante's experience in language and history was certainly made apparent in this work as he analyzed many different languages and made his argument for a combination of the best qualities of the fourteen to seventeen Italian dialects and approximately 30 sub-dialects he encountered in his travels. The book argues his case against Latin with quite a bit of reasoning. To this day, Dante Alighieri is known as the "Father of the Modern Italian Language" for his writing and efforts to put into use one common language.

A second reason Alighieri would possibly not feel worried about writing La Divina Commedia is that he was already exiled from his beloved city of Florence. In his next writing called the Convivio, he writes to cleanse his reputation and to establish a view that he feels people should have of him. This writing takes place during the time when he

struggled desperately to become a citizen of Florence once again. He soon came to the realization that he was not returning to Florence. It is clear that La Divina Commedia

was demeaning to powers that encompass all of Italy, but Dante didnít have a reason to be concerned as his exile from Florence was an almost fatal blow to his hope and pride. It is likely that many of us would develop a "nothing to lose" attitude in a situation where we have suffered losses of extreme proportions. He did not have much of what he desired; furthermore, he did not have the ability to recoup his losses. The love of his life Beatrice had been dead for years now and he was permanently exiled from his place of birth and source of great pride, Florence.

Upon his exile, Dante relied upon benefactors that offered to take the responsibility of supporting him with food, shelter, and money. One rarely receives "something for nothing" as the saying goes and Dante was certainly aware that he would be providing some sort of retribution for this honor of being supported. His benefactors anxiously awaited his new writing; sometimes Dante had to force them to wait for the completion of his works.

In a performance recently given at Synchronicity Space on October 24th, 1998 in Manhattan called The Dante Project: Inferno, there is a specific scene in which one of Danteís benefactors almost forces him to reveal his unfinished transcript. After some argument, the benefactor gives up, but insists that Dante "at least" is expected to show up for dinner to entertain him with intellectual conversation.

Another reason that Dante's Commedia did not have the amount of negative repercussions as it could have simply because of expectation. After the sum total of his bitter experiences, it was only logical at the time to assume that upon his terminal exile from Florence, and his bittering stance on the political and religious institutions of Italy during his time, he would probably not be writing a piece without complaints and poetic retribution.

Finally, Dante Alighieri if anything else had one immovable ally on his side; his fervent belief in pre-ordination. If Dante had the volition to write anything, and did, he believed it was his place in destiny to do so, and to suffer the repercussions was simply living his life as God would want it. His belief in pre-ordination has been documented in many publications throughout history.

Needless to say, such a controversial poem written by a man who was well respected may have an influence on the thinking or philosophy of others. One of the more obscure and profound cases of Dante's influence can be found in the study of Niccolò Machiavelli who is best known today for his book Il Principe, or The Prince.

Alighieri and Machiavelli's lives have quite a bit in common. Both were born in Florence (Alighieri in 1265 and Machiavelli in 1469), both came from families that were fairly noble. Both men were eventually exiled from Florence due to political controversies. They would both would live out their lives as scholars, philosophers, and prolific writers, and pass on approximately the same age.

While Dante studied Aquinas, Virgil, and the ancient Greeks, Machiavelli studied Petrarch and Dante Alighieri. It is not an easy task to find any substantial and direct evidence of Dante's influence on Niccolò's philosophy. There is no clear and direct evidence of this influence in Machiavelli's books. Machiavelli was, however, a prolific author of personal and business letters. There is quite an exceptional indication of Dante's influence on the life and philosophy of Niccolò in the letters he wrote to his confidants and colleagues.

In a letter written by Machiavelli to his confidant Francesco Guicciardini on December 19th, 1525, Machiavelli is encouraging his friend to seek financial aid from the Pope to marry off his daughters. Machiavelli's main theme of his letter is a story in which Romeo gives advice to the Duke of Provence urging him to make a distinguished marriage for the eldest daughter, and other successful marriages will follow. Machiavelli used quotes from Dante to seemingly legitimatize his statements.

In short, I would try the pope just the same, and even if I came up short in the first rime around, I would talk about my aim in general terms, beg him to help me with it, find out where he would stand, and proceed directly or hang back-depending on how it went. I remind you of the advice that Romeo gave to the duke of Provence, who had four daughters; he urged him to make a distinguished marriage for the eldest, pointing out that she would provide an example and precedent for the rest. So, he married her to the King of France, and gave him half of Provence as a dowry. Once he did this, he married the others off to three kings; as Dante says:

He had four daughters, each a queen;

The cause of all this was Romeo

A pilgrim and of humble birth. (Alighieri, Paradiso VI 133-135)

(Atkinson, Sices 372)

This is simply a brief except to establish that Dante was an influence in Machiavelli's life, and this is not a completely unknown fact. What is not common knowledge is the extent to which Dante influenced the life of Machiavelli. Machiavelli

is best known to the world by his book called The Prince. The Prince is a quasi handbook for the acquisition and maintenance of Principalities. It has made Machiavelli quite infamous as a villain (although a dedicated study of Machiavelli reveals his immorality as grossly overstated) and as a politician/philosopher. The Prince was not completely written under the name of Il Principe/The Prince. It had its beginnings as a short study called De Principatibus. De Principatibus became the first ten chapters of The Prince. In Machiavelli's own words, he stated that without Dante Alighieri, De Principatibus and subsequently, The Prince would not have been written.

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that is alone mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for hours at a time, I feel no boredom, I forget all of my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversations and composed a short study, De Principatibus, in which I delve as deeply as I can into the ideas concerning this topic, discussing the definition of a princedom, the categories of princedoms, how they are acquired, how they are retained, and why they are lostÖ (Atkinson, Sices 264)

In Machiavelli's own words, he has stated that the ideas to create De Principatibus, the beginnings of The Prince, were derived and documented from his "discourses" with the ancients (one being Dante Alighieri) and that he undertook this project with the motivation that Dante said that "No one understand anything unless he retains what he has understood." After Machiavelli's death, a revised version of De

Principatibus was published as Il Principe, The Prince. As an aside, so much is believed and so little is actually known of Machiavelli's motivations for writing The Prince. It is said to have been originally written to appease the Dei Medici Family and allow him entrance back into Florence. Actually, in the same letter cited above, Machiavelli states that De Principatibus is to be dedicated to a man stated as His Magnificence Giuliano which was Giuliano, duke of Nemours. Giuliano was not very interested in Machiavelli's writing. He also died on March 17, 1516. It was then dedicated to Lorenzo II Dei Medici who became duke of Urbino later the same year on October 8th.

It ought to be welcomed by a prince, and especially a new prince; therefore I am dedicating it to His Magnificence GiulianoÖ (Atkinson, Sices 264)

From Machiavelli to his Magnificence Giuliano, we can find in many societies some kind of connection to or influence of Dante Alighieri. In his death, Dante had the honor of influencing and inspiring great legends in politics, philosophy and the arts. Salvador Dalì is an artist of legendary proportion and needs no introduction. Dalì was commissioned by the Italian government to create illustrations for La Divina Commedia in 1951. The illustrations would be in commemoration of the 700th year anniversary of Dante's birth. Dalì was however, quite controversial as an artist at the time. The Italians, by nature tend to be a nationalistic group of people. There was a large faction of Italian people who opposed Dante's commemoration to be done by a Spaniard. The commission was soon rescinded; however; Dalì was greatly affected by La Divina Commedia and proceeded to create 100 interpretive illustrations. He created 34 illustrations for Danteís Inferno, 33 for Dante's Purgatorio and another 33 for the Paradiso - one can only imagine what force a writing has when it inspired one of historyís most sought after artistís works; and so many of them! Every one of Dalìís works has (a) specific Canto(s) in which it was inspired. Dalì as well as his work have been an inspiration and influential force in the world. When once asked about Dante Alighieri, Dalì said he was fascinated by "his angelic vision of being and cosmic side of God; incomprehensible for man, and reflected in the mirror of the face of the angel". (Generalitat de Catalunya 50) It is obvious why La Divina Commedia inspired such works of art as it truly is a breakthrough in terms of creating visions with words. It carries within its words the power of vivid imagery. The method in which Alighieri used his verse to make the reader see all that he is experiencing is that of a master. His verses have the power to make one cry for joy in Paradiso as well as writhe in horror during his descent through the depths of hell.

tal, non per foco, ma per divin'arte,

bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,

che 'nviscava la ripa d'ogne parte.

I' vedea lei, ma non vedea in essa

mai che le bolle che 'l bollor levava,

e gonfiar tutta, e riseder compressaÖ

Ö che, per veder, non indugia 'l partire:

e vidi dietro a noi un diavol nero

correndo su per lo scoglio venire.

Ahi quant'elli era ne l'aspetto fero!

e quanto mi parea ne l'atto acerbo,

con l'ali aperte e sovra i piè leggero!

L'omero suo, ch'era aguto e superbo,

carcava un peccator con ambo l'anche,

e quei tenea de' piè ghermito 'l nerboÖ

so, not by fire but by the art of God,

below there boiled a thick and tarry mass

that covered all the banks with clamminess.

I saw it, but I could not see within it;

no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,

the swelling of the pitch; and then it settledÖ

Öwho does not stop his flight and yet would look.

And then in back of us I saw a black

demon as he came racing up the crags.

Ah, he was surely barbarous to see!

And how relentless seemed to me his acts!

His wings were open and his feet were lithe;

across his shoulder, which was sharp and high,

he had slung a sinner, upward from the thighs;

in front, the demon gripped him by the anklesÖ

ÖHe threw the sinner down, then wheeled along

The stony cliff: no mastiff's ever been

unleashed with so much haste to chase a thief.

The sinner plunged, then surfaced, black with pitch;

but now the demons, from beneath the bridge,

shouted: "The Sacred Face has no place here;

here we swim differently than in the Serchio;

if you don't want to feel our grappling hooks,

don't try to lift yourself above that ditch."

They pricked him with a hundred prongs and more,

then taunted: "Here one dances under cover,

so try to grab your secret graft below."

The demons did the same as any cook

who has his urchins force the meat with hooks

deep down into the pot, that it not float.

(Alighieri/Mandelbaum 187-188)



It is to no surprise that even in modern media, Danteís hell is used as a template. The movie released only this year, What Dreams May Come is about a man (Robin Williams) who dies in a car accident and goes to heaven, which takes the form of his personal paradise. He joins his children in heaven as they had already been killed in a previous car accident. His wife (Annabella Sciorra) is struggling to keep hope up as she feel she has nothing to live for. She gives up hope, commits suicide, and consequently goes to hell (the same fate she would suffer in the La Divina Commedia). Williamís defies her fate, and out of true love for his wife, travels through the depths of hell to find her. In his journey through hell, he comes upon a land in which sinners are buried up to their necks in soil and the dust blinds some of the sinnersí eyes. As he tries to walk on this ground comprised of suffering humans, he accidentally steps on them and they yell out in pain and ask the question, "Why are you walking on me?" Williams, upon the pleading of an old man, clears his eyes of the dust, and a dialogue ensues.

This scene is an almost exact re-creation of Danteís Ptolomea; the ninth circle of hell, third ring where the sinners are buried up to their heads in ice (not soil), and their eyes are frozen shut by the tears they shed. The text in Divina Commedia portrays a similar scenario, and the influence of this movie is clearly of Alighieri.

Oh sovra tutte mal creata plebe

che stai nel loco onde parlare è duro,

mei foste state qui pecore o zebe!

Come noi fummo giù nel pozzo scuro

sotto i piè del gigante assai più bassi,

e io mirava ancora a l'alto muro,

dicere udi'mi: ´Guarda come passi:

va sì, che tu non calchi con le piante

le teste de' fratei miseri lassiª.

E un de' tristi de la fredda

crosta gridò a noi: ´O anime crudeli

tanto che data v'è l'ultima posta,

levatemi dal viso i duri veli,

sì ch'io sfoghi 'l duol che 'l cor m'impregna,

un poco, pria che 'l pianto si raggeliª.

Per ch'io a lui: ´Se vuo' ch'i' ti sovvegna,

dimmi chi se', e s'io non ti disbrigo,

al fondo de la ghiaccia ir mi convegnaª

O rabble ill-begotten above all,

Who're in the place to speak of which is hard,

'Twere better ye had here been sheep or goats !

When we were down within the darksome well,

Beneath the giant's feet, but lower far,

And I was scanning still the lofty wall,

heard it said to me: "Look how thou steppest I

Take heed thou do not trample with thy feet

The heads of the tired, miserable brothers !"

And one of the wretches of the frozen crust

Cried out to us: "O souls so merciless

That the last post is given unto you,

Lift from mine eyes the rigid veils, that I

May vent the sorrow which impregns my heart

A little, e'er the weeping recongeal."

Whence I to him: "If thou wouldst have me help thee

Say who thou wast; and if I free thee not,

May I go to the bottom of the ice."

(Alighieri/Mandelbaum 293,307)



For hundreds of years, Dante Alighieri's love for his art of writing and his creation Divina Commedia have been an inspiration to thousands of scholars, scientists, artists and philosophers around the world. A creation of love that has affected and will continue to compel thousands, is not done justice by a simple analysis. Although it is our right to judge upon our knowledge of Alighieri to make a character analysis, it would take a number of lifetimes to be able to understand and fully appreciate Alighieri's life and works. Let the man who made his belief in the failure of words clear throughout the Divina Commedia, let him speak now in his own words as an example of the writing that has profoundly affected generations.

Bernardo m'accennava, e sorridea,

perch'io guardassi suso; ma io era

già per me stesso tal qual ei volea:

ché la mia vista, venendo sincera,

e più e più intrava per lo raggio

de l'alta luce che da sé è vera

Da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio

che 'l parlar mostra, ch'a tal vista cede,

e cede la memoria a tanto oltraggio.

Qual è colui che sognando vede,

che dopo 'l sogno la passione impressa

rimane, e l'altro a la mente non riede,

cotal son io, ché quasi tutta cessa

mia visione, e ancor mi distilla

nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.

Così la neve al sol si disigilla;

così al vento ne le foglie levi

si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

O somma luce che tanto ti levi

da' concetti mortali, a la mia mente

ripresta un poco di quel che parevi,

e fa la lingua mia tanto possente,

ch'una favilla sol de la tua gloria

possa lasciare a la futura gente;

ché, per tornare alquanto a mia memoria

e per sonare un poco in questi versi,

più si conceperà di tua vittoria.

(Alighieri/Vandelli 917-918)


Bernard indicated to me, and smiled,

for me to look above; but I was

already for myself doing the same as which he wanted

that my sight, becoming clearer,

and more and more (able to glimpse into) the beam

of the (exalted) light that itself is real

From then on, what I saw was greater

than the "spoken word" can express, at such a sight surrenders,

the memory when faced with such (divine) excess.

It is like that of he who dreaming sees,

that after the dream's passion imprinted,

remains, and the rest the mind cannot rebuild,

such am I, that almost completely fades

my vision, and yet it still distills

in (my) heart the sweetness that was born from it.

Like this the snow under the sun thaws

like this the wind lifts the leaves

(and) is lost the saying(s) of Sibyl

Oh supreme light that you are so far lifted

from mortal concepts , to my mind

give me again (even) a little of that which you appeared

and make my tongue so powerful,

that a glimmer of your glory

can be left to the future people;

that for returning (even) somewhat to my memory

and for echoing (even) a little in these verses,

it can be more understood - your victory.










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