On this day in history, 15 June 1300, Dante Alighieri became one of the six priors of Florence. He was around 35 years of age. Even though he served for only two months, his activities–which included the banishment of his own rivals–would be enough to result in his exile two years later.
The Divina Commedia, while written almost a decade later, would be chronologically set two months before his taking of a political office, during the Holy Week of 1300. The decision to set his infernal and celestial journeys shortly before his brief political career certainly demands the question be asked: Why would a man who had been told by the souls of the deceased about his impending exile proceed with his contentious career?
Nowhere in the Comedy is the fictionalized Dante commanded to continue with the actions that will result in his banishment from Florence. One presumes that the poet-politician could have taken the warnings of the damned and the blessed as an opportunity to keep his head down and avoid the troubles that would surely come his way. Nor does it seem that he suffers from amnesia at the end of the poem.
Perhaps Dante–the real one rather than the fictionalized version–wished to grant a grander scope to his exile. By setting his tour of the afterlife just before his priorship, Dante takes control of the situation and makes his actions a part of unchangeable Providence. Dante makes himself a partner in the working out of the Divine Will. After the pope had sided against Dante with the Black Guelphs, the poet could retroactively condemn the papacy’s intrusion into worldly politics by penning a set of similar heavenly condemnations.
The Inferno begins the evening before Good Friday, the night in which Christ asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. While Jesus was strengthened by an angel, Dante is strengthened by his hero Virgil and his old love Beatrice. Dante is midway through his life’s course, about the same age as Christ at his Passion. The poem is not so much a comedy as a Gethsemane. The poet imaginatively drinks the cup of his future to the full, embracing his predicted suffering rather than fleeing it.
Truly, what else was there to be done, except drift off silently into a smoldering bitterness? Dante called upon all the courts of Heaven to his aid in condemning the evils of his time and place, using the height of his poetic genius to confirm “Heaven’s” judgment in the hearts of men.
And there it has remained to this day.