The Political Context of Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s “Inferno” was a great epic poem of the early Renaissance. It was known for its astute commentary on political and religious levels, both deeply woven into the work through allegory. Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in a specific historical and political context. As a young man, Dante largely taught himself how to write verse, but he also studied with the great troubadours of Florence, writing to them and circulating his own love lyrics. In 1295 he began an active public life, and within a few years he became an important figure in Florentine politics. He joined the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries in order to participate in government.

Dante’s time was one of great instability. There were two political parties in Italy during Dante’s time. The Guelphs, with whom Dante sided, and the Ghibellines of Floerence. Guelph is the Italian form of the German family name Welf. It was the Welf family that held the duchies of Bavaria and Saxony in the 1100’s. Ghibelline is said to have come from Waiblingen, the name of an estate of the Hohenstaufen family.

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The contest of these two families for the throne of Germany began the war between the two Italian parties. The Ghibellines favored the Holy Roman Empire, and the Guelphs supported the pope, who opposed the authority of the Holy Roman emperor in Italy. The Hohenstaufens were wiped out in the mid-1200’s and the names lost their original meaning. By tradition, certain towns were Guelph and others Ghibelline. If the ruling authorities in any town took one name, the opposition usually took the other.

The Guelphs were the ones who finally prevailed in the end. Around 1300, however, the Guelph party split into two hostile factions: the Blacks and the Whites. The Blacks, the faithful Guelphs, remained in control. The Whites eventually associated themselves with the Ghibellines. Dante, meanwhile, fought to preserve the independence of Florence, and repeatedly opposed the schemes of Pope Boniface VIII, who wanted to place Florence under the control of the church. By taking advantage of the unrest in Florence, Boniface attempted to take control of the city and undermine his opponents by “promising protection to those who displayed some sympathy with his cause.” (Bergin, 8). In the summer of 1300, Dante, as one of the six magistrates of Florence, opposed Boniface! To show his displeasure Boniface wanted to excommunicate the members. Dante was saved from this fate only because his term of office was about to expire. The events, however, only served to worsen his already adverse opinion of Boniface.

In 1301, Boniface summoned Charles of Valois and his army to Italy attempting to neutralize antichurch forces in Florence. It was at this time that Dante was sent was one of three envoys on behalf of the commune to the pope,”(Bergin, 12) in order to request a change in papal policy toward the city. After the talks, Dante was retained and during his absence Charles of Valois entered Florence. The Blacks staged a revolution and gained complete control of the commonwealth. Dante returned to find himself exiled on puffed-up charges of “embezzlement, opposition to the pope and his forces, disturbance of the peace of Florence,”(Bergin 13) and a number of other transgressions. Dante always felt that his difficulties had been brought about by the trickery of Boniface, and this added to his continually ailing opinion of him. When Dante refused to answer to the charges against him, and when he did not pay the fine levied for his crimes, a second sentence was imposed: “should he ever re! Turn to the commune, he would be seized and burned alive. “(Bergin 17) There is no evidence that Dante ever saw Florence again.

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The Political Context of Dante’s Inferno. (2022, Feb 01). Retrieved from