Beginning the Journey

Early in the 14th century, during his years in exile from the family and home to which he was never to return, Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri - now better known simply as Dante - wrote that he had become lost in a dark wood.

Gustave Doré, Inferno: Canto I, plate I, The vision of hell by Dante Alighieri, trans. Henry Francis Cary, 1894. Gift of John McCutcheon. Rare Books, Archives & Special Collections

A sometime philosopher, soldier, and failed politician, Dante is best remembered as a remarkably ambitious poet whose epic Commedia, or Divine Comedy, was instrumental in shaping not only Italian literature but the Italian language, and was to leave a profound impression on the Western imagination.

The Divine Comedy is many things: an allegory, a philosophical tract, religious commentary, bitter political satire, and ultimately perhaps a love story. From the dark wood, exile and despair, Dante is guided through hell, purgatory and heaven. He meets friends, enemies and supernatural beings. He chats with devils and saints, encounters horrors and wonders in plenty, and is eventually led back to a place of spiritual clarity and acceptance.

T.S. Eliot - another remarkable poet - declared that 'Shakespeare and Dante divide the world between them. There is no third.' The Commedia's influence can certainly be seen in Eliot's own epic, The Wasteland, and in the work of other famous writers like Milton, Beckett, Borges and Pound to name only a few; but its hold on art and popular culture is deep and abiding. Despite being rooted in a medieval mindset, music, movies, comics, even video games all bear the stamp of Dante’s creativity.

More than 700 years after Dante’s death, his legacy is evident in the University of Melbourne’s Special Collections. This exhibition will explore the influence of his life and work: the world in which he lived, and the world his writing helped shape.

For instance, the Divine Comedy displays Dante’s knowledge of the scientific method, and discusses mathematics, optics, astrology and geography, demonstrating that a medieval understanding of the world was far from primitive. And while the poem takes the accepted tenets of the Christian afterlife as its setting, it eschews dogma for a much more sophisticated understanding of faith. Rather than wallowing in piety, Dante weaponises the Hereafter to skewer his political opponents, from those who exiled him on up to the Pope.

Finally, the Divine Comedy is an examination of the inner workings of the human soul, discussing spirituality, the ways in which one should live a just life, and most especially love. In his quest through the afterlife, Dante looks at both romantic and religious love, and ultimately finds a way to accept exile and mortality.