“Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live anymore” – Carlos Fuentes
Don’t you hate it when you die without publishing your masterpiece? Not everybody has apostles and publicists waiting in the wings to jot down some notes on the cool stuff you said and turn it into a bestseller. Or maybe you did finish your heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but before you could find a self-addressed, stamped envelope, the grim reaper came to call. One wonders how many timeless literary monuments have been lost to us or emerged incomplete due to poor organizational skills, esoteric filing systems, or plain old procrastination. This is precisely what would have happened to the famed 14th Century Italian poet Durante degli Alighieri (“Dante” to his pals) and to his magnum opus The Divine Comedy, widely considered one of the greatest representatives of world literature ever written, were it not for the timely intervention of his ghost.
Now, Dante’s lack of foresight in putting his literary affairs in order before he contracted malaria on a diplomatic mission to Venice and died in 1321 A.D. is understandable. He was a busy guy, not one of those cloistered scribes solely dedicated to “his art”. He had the misfortune of being born in the Republic of Florence around 1265. Florence might be a pleasant place to hang around these days, but the 12-15th Century represented a rough patch for the medieval city-states of North and Central Italy, particularly as it was a major political battleground between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, manifested in the ongoing conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines.
It all goes back to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190). “Barbarossa” sounds pretty intimidating (like he was a barbarous dude), but actually just means “red beard” in Italian, and although it has a certain piratical flair, suggests there wasn’t as much wanton slaughter involved (but, this would be an incorrect assumption, as there was plenty of wanton slaughter to go around). Italy was an obvious target for an empire that (1) considered itself “holy”, and (2) had pretensions towards being the clear successor of the Roman Empire, and Frederick Barbarossa did his best to expand his territory there. Of course, one doesn’t just wander about modestly and quietly sacking cities. You need a battle cry. When Holy Roman Emperor Lothar II died in 1133 A.D., the aristocratic families of Welf and Hohenstaufens both had imperial aspirations, and got down to clubbing each other over the head at the Siege of Weinsberg, with the Hohenstaufens all the while shouting “Strike for Gibbelins!”, as the besieged castle was called Wibellingen. This is pronounced “Ghibellino” in Italian, hence the pro-Imperial factions in the Italian city-states were called Ghibellinos, while the opposing factions that allied themselves to the Papal States were called Guelphs (in honor of their historical rivals, the Welfs).
Dante’s family were staunch Guelphs, and he himself fought with the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. Victory at Campaldino cast Dante into civic life, complicated by his arranged marriage (at 12 years old) to Gemma di Manetto Donati (of a powerful Florentine family) and his lifelong obsession with childhood crush Beatrice Portinari. Florentine politics required membership in a guild, so Dante joined the Apothecaries Union (without ever intending to practice the profession). Sadly, the victorious Guelphs almost immediately fractured into “White” and “Black” factions, the Black Party advocating closer ties to Rome and the Papal States, and the Whites demanding greater independence. Things degenerated. The “Whites” took control of Florence and expelled the “Blacks”. Dante was solidly in the “White Guelph” camp, so the future was looking bright. Sadly, Pope Boniface VIII was unhappy with this outcome and planned a military occupation of Florence, appointing Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV of France as peacemaker for Tuscany. This worried Florence, so they sent a delegation to the Pope asking what his deal was. Dante was one of the delegates.
The Pope didn’t want to hear a lot of moaning from upstart Florentines, so he dismissed the delegation. Except for Dante, to whom he’d taken a shine. Meanwhile Charles of Valois and the Black Guelphs took over Florence. Dante was consequently exiled for life from Florence, although he was involved in several abortive attempts to reinstate the White Guelphs. Dante lived out the rest of his life in Ravenna.
The point is that although Dante was clearly inclined towards a life of letters, he obviously had a very taxing day job as a political operative. No wonder he forgot he had written something awesome. Incidentally, he also had a parcel of children to contend with, including Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni and Antonia (by Gemma), and possibly several others. Next time, before you go and moan about the annoyances of that occupation that pays your bills while you furiously scratch out short stories in the wee hours of the night, consider whether you are in Dante’s league. Are you in an arranged marriage and in love with someone else? Are you busy negotiating with the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire? Are you enmeshed in political machinations that got you exiled to Ravenna? You probably have never even been involved in a cavalry battle. Cowboy up, for Christ’s sake.
So, you lazy bastard, it’s not even as if Dante hadn’t published anything before dying. The list is long. I mean, dude wrote a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, on principle he refused to return to Florence (they wanted to commute his death sentence and rescind his exile, but he didn’t like the conditions). In 1320, languishing in Ravenna, he finished Paradiso, the third section of The Divine Comedy (and didn’t hesitate to condemn some of his political opponents to eternal damnation in it), but this was his sideline. You’ve got to make a living. After a diplomatic mission to Venice on behalf of Ravenna, he died in 1321.
The Divine Comedy is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three canticas – Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise) – each consisting of 33 cantos (Italian plural canti), plus an introductory canto (bringing the total number of cantos to 100), and is Dante’s first person account of his fictional tour of the realms of the dead. Inferno was published in 1317. It’s unclear if Purgatorio was published before Dante’s death (it probably was), but Paradiso was published posthumously. And there was a problem. The last thirteen cantos of Paradiso were missing from the manuscript.
When Dante died, his sons Jacopo and Piero, both poets themselves, searched long and hard for the completed version of the Paradiso to no avail. “The friends Dante left behind him, his sons and his disciples, having searched at many times and for several months everything of his writing, to see whether he had left any conclusion to his work, could in nowise find any of the remaining cantos; his friends generally being much mortified that God had not at least lent him so long to the world, that he might have been able to complete the small remaining part of his work; and having sought so long and never found it, they remained in despair. Jacopo and Piero were sons of Dante, and each of them being a rhymer, they were induced by the persuasions of their friends to endeavour to complete, as far as they were able, their father’s work, in order that it should not remain imperfect” (Tonybee, 1910, p207).
It’s nice to have devoted progeny that want to make sure the world appreciates your genius, but you know how writers are. You have a vision, you have a few drinks, and you know where you want to go with your scribblings. Death is a massive inconvenience. The problem with another writer polishing off your incomplete work is that they might choose an obvious plotline for efficiency’s sake. For the love of god, the butler didn’t do it. Yet, nobody could find those last 13 cantos that wrapped up The Divine Comedy, so Jacopo settled down with quill and ink and got ready to work out a few rhymes in honor of his father. The night before he started the endeavor, Dante’s ghost appeared to him.
A worthy citizen of Ravenna, Pier Giardino by name, and for a long time himself the pupil of Dante, was wont to relate how, in the eighth month after the death of his master, this same Jacopo arrived at his house in the night, just near to the hour of dawn, and told him that he had that very night, a very short time previously seen a vision in his sleep of Dante, his father, clad in white robes and with an unwonted light upon his face, advance towards him; that it seemed as if he, Jacopo, then addressed him and asked him if he still lived; to which he replied, Yes, but that he was alive with a true life—not with this of ours. Then it seemed as if he (Jacopo) further asked him (Dante) whether before passing into the true life he had completed his work, and, if he had completed it, where was the missing portion, which they had sought in vain, to be found. To this question he appeared to hear for the second time the answer, Yes, I finished it. And then it seemed as if the spirit took him by the hand and led him into the chamber where he was wont to sleep when in life, and, touching one part of it, he said, “It is here, that which you have so long sought for.” And having said this, it seemed as if both the vision and his own sleep vanished simultaneously, on which account he (Jacopo) would declare that he was quite unable to keep from coming to him (Pier Giardino) at once to relate what had occurred, in order that they might both go together and search in the spot indicated, of which he retained an accurate recollection, in order to see if it had been pointed out by a true spirit or was merely a false delusion of the mind (Phillimore, 1898, p180).
Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), in compiling his biography of Dante, received the story directly from Pier Giardino himself. Giardino and Jacopo set about looking for the manuscript in the spot Dante’s ghost had indicated.
So they went together, it still being dark, to the house where Dante died, and calling up the master they proceeded to the place pointed out. There was a piece of matting fastened against the wall, as they had before noticed when Dante lived there. On removing it an opening was discovered behind, and in it they found many writings which had become moldy from the damp, and would have perished had they remained there much longer. Having carefully cleaned them, they perceived the numbers of the missing cantos, and found to their joy that the papers contained the conclusion of the poem—the last thirteen. These they gladly copied, and sent them to Messer Cane, and thus the labour of so many years was rendered perfect (Baynes, 1891, p74).
Writers generally don’t like having words put in their mouth. They figure that’s their job and a minor road bump like death just shouldn’t get in the way of the ending to a good story as originally conceived. Oscar Wilde once said, “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave”. This comes in handy when you shuffle off this mortal coil, having misplaced the epilogue.
Baynes, Herbert. Dante and His Ideal. New York: Macmillan & Company, 1891.
Phillimore, Catherine Mary. Dante At Ravenna: a Study. London: E. Stock, 1898.
Toynbee, Paget Jackson, 1855-1932. Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works. [4th ed.] New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910.