While researching Dante and the Paradiso (I’m also taking Poetry and Cosmology, which employs Paradiso,) I stumbled upon some very amusing historical information that might give context to Toni Morrison’s relation to the text when writing her own paradise trilogy. Dante isn’t buried in his home city of Florence, much to the agony of the Florentines. Florence possesses a great shrine containing the likes of Florentine legends Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, and Machiavelli. There is a tomb for Dante, and despite the assurances of the tour guides, the tomb is empty. Dante is buried where he died in Ravenna. In 1302, Dante was exiled from Florence by the reigning Black Guelf party and their patron Pope Boniface. Dante became a political party of one, alone against the papacy and the city of Florence. Without any legal authority, he had to rely on his writing to forment various trouble for the black Guelfs, including convincing the monarch Henry VII of France to sack Florence and install a new governing political power. I can’t help but think of the classic saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ when I read of the troubles Dante caused for the Guelfs. Mere political warfare wasn’t enough for Dante, he stabbed at the Guelf’s and papacy’s base of moral authority. When Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, he threw many Guelfs and former popes into the depths of the Inferno for their various crimes. Dante gave the politically maneuvering Boniface up the honor of being an icon of sin, destined to be thrown into hell upon his death. During canto XIX, the previous pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for Boniface and calls him out for his greed, rape, and foul tongue;
I stood as does the friar who confesses
the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,
calls back the friar, and so delays his death;
and he cried out: “Are you already standing,
already standing there, o Boniface?
The book has lied to me by several years.
Are you so quickly sated with the riches
for which you did not fear to take by guile
the Lovely Lady, then to violate her?”
And I became like those who stand as if
they have been mocked, who cannot understand
what has been said to them and can’t respond. (Inf. XIX, 49-60).
Given that Dante is considered the greatest poet of all time, and his depiction of hell is the foundation of all subsequent depictions, I have to think that his immortal writing skills won out over the fleeting power of his enemies.
Dante eventually was invited to Ravenna, where he finished his Divine Comedy, and died in 1321. After realizing their lost son was the greatest poet in human history and the founder of modern Italian, Florence demanded Ravenna give his body back. When Ravenna refused, Florence received Papal authority to retrieve Dante’s body. They received a coffin filled with rocks. True to Dante’s last wishes and sentiments of ‘screw Florence and the Pope,’ Ravenna had refused, and his body was eventually enshrined in a small church in Ravenna. I have it on good authority to not remind the Florentines, or you won’t leave Florence in one piece.
That was the historical background of Dante; he was a writer who suffered severe wrongs in his life. He was ruined by the dominant political and moral forces of his time and homeland. When he resisted, all he had to fight against their overwhelming military and political power was his pen and paper. I was wondering if anyone could draw a philosophical, or metaphorical connection in the conversation between Toni Morrison and Dante.