Dante: Michelangelo’s Bedtime Reading

Nowadays it’s hard to understand how that long poem, how any poem, could have meant so much to people.


Dante: a fresco in the Cathedral of Florence

Educated men and women knew many verses of the Divine Comedy by heart. Even private letters are filled with quotes and allusions. People saw what that great Seer Dante saw and chose just the words he had chosen to speak about it. And not only that: they imagined what he imagined and took his fantasies for truth, for reality.

If Dante said Hell had nine circles, Hell had nine circles, and it was right that it should.  They could just see that sign over the Gates of Hell: Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter. It was real, it was scary.


Dante’s Inferno (Hell) by Stradanus

Dante himself read Virgil. He knew the Aeneid, the greatest poem Rome ever produced, like a prayer.  More than a thousand years before,Virgil had described Hades, the dark world in which the souls of the dead wandered around in sad droves.

Both Dante and Virgil sang to themselves the poetry of Homer, the Greek poet who had taught and delighted for a thousand years. Generations of young sailors who hadn’t read or heard his epic Ulysses watched out for the Sirens when they came to an eerie stretch of ocean; and young warriors who had only been told about the Illiad daydreamed of equalling the shining deeds of Achilles.


Homer, Virgil, and Dante by Raphael

Dante was the greatest man in hundreds of years. Until his time there were two irreconcilable worlds: the ancient and the medieval one. The ancient world was pagan and so, essentially corrupt. You couldn’t learn from those old thinkers: they themselves were lost. Christian theology had come to substitute their groping philosophies. Life now had an explanation—the explanation.

Along came Dante. He found that the old pagan philosophers and poets weren’t always so wrong. Sometimes they even seemed to speak like good Christians. And, when you came right down to it, the Latin poet Virgil had written like an angel, so beautiful was his verse.

Dante came up with the idea of writing a great poem himself about the World to Come; and he would put all those great men in it, from whatever time. And that World to Come would be the heaven Dante’s time knew, but it would also be the Underworld of the old pagans.

He wrote his poem in Italian, in his own Tuscan dialect. That was a real novelty: until then, educated men wrote and read Latin. His poem was so good, he wrote with such precision, grace, and beauty, that it became the model of language for all Italians during centuries. Of language, of thought, of fantasy.

Michelangelo read the Divine Comedy at night after work and sighed when he came to the deep and beautiful lines. He had never learned Latin and Dante was his whole education.

First printed edition of the Divine Comedy, such as Michelangelo might have readThis file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license by JoJan

First printed edition of the Divine Comedy, such as Michelangelo might have read
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license by JoJan

And the truth is, all the Renaissance philosophers and linguists, though they learned Latin and Greek and adored the writings of the pagan writers, at night they went home and read their Dante. He spoke to them in the direct, untranslated language of their heads and hearts. And made them feel that it was incredibly beautiful.

The Empyrean (highest heaven), from the illustrations to The Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré

..The Empyrean (highest heaven), from the illustrations to The Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré


This entry was posted in art, history, literature, Michelangelo, Renaissance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Dante: Michelangelo’s Bedtime Reading

  1. Poetry has the power to evoke images. Before the invention of cinema (which provides people with ready images), poetry was the most powerful stimulant of people’s imagination.
    If you think how many people go crazy today over modern imagination stimuli (such as the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings sagas) then one can better understand how poetry affected them back then, when visual material was much less abundant.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    I wish I were knowledgeable enough about Dante, Virgil, Homer, poetry to say something intelligent or pertinent. Unfortunately I’m not.

    As usual though I do wonder how this might apply today. Is there always a larger public looking for something written or painted in the vernacular into which they can pour their hopes, fears, some additional meaning? I suspect that stories that resonate with people, either in wiiting, or painting, or song, or film allow them to see something bigger, or perhaps to find a way to make sense of their world.

    Just guesses on my part. And I have no idea as to what the counterpart to Dante and the Divine Comedy might be today or has been over the last 100 years. But it’s always inteesting to think about and your writings are always a springboard to such thoughts.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken!
      As Aristotle (Koskinas, I mean) wrote, movies and TV do that same job just fine today, or better. You can walk into a dark, enchanted forest while watching the Lord of the Rings and go back in daydreams as often as you like. Of course there is no single work any more–there is no longer a single common culture. I don’t think folks are looking for “something bigger”–that is mistrusted; they only want to go into the forest to escape for a while. Spielberg is their Virgil. His platitudinous moral only comfortably confirms their fixed notions. Literature is out. “Greatness” is out.

  3. will says:

    Finding analogies between poetry and painting has been tried by many artists, especially in China. On our side of the world, Leonardo is thought to have said that a poem was a blind painting, and a painting was a mute poem.
    These views seem to have been given up nowadays, and each of these arts considered as essentially different. In my view, that is justified. Poetry is more powerful than painting in terms of transforming the ‘receiver’. It seems to me that the scope offered by poetry for freeing up the reader’s imagination is much broader, and the effect upon the mind and the heart of the reader is deeper and long lasting. The reader is carried out of himself when reading poetry monuments such as Homer, Virgil, Dante and others. This explains the veneration which was granted by people to the Ancient poets.
    It may be that the Divine Comedy was to Michel-Ange a world into which he transported himself to conceive some of his master works (The Last Judgment in particular), leaving behind him the mundane ‘reality’. Did’nt he write in one of his poems I think: ‘Make me never go back into myself’?
    Poetry when seen for such an angle is pretty far from mere modern commercial movie entertainment. When Literature and Greatness are in, life is different…
    Thanks, Swallows, for bringing up such exciting topics.
    Best regards

  4. Pingback: Poetry by Michelangelo | DCAD Library's Blog

Leave a Reply