Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

2014 Edition
| Editors: Thomas Hockey, Virginia Trimble, Thomas R. Williams, Katherine Bracher, Richard A. Jarrell, Jordan D. MarchéII, JoAnn Palmeri, Daniel W. E. Green

Dante Alighieri

  • Dennis Danielson
Reference work entry

Alternate Name

 Alighieri, Dante

Born Florence, (Italy), May or June 1265

Died Ravenna, (Italy), 14 September 1321

Dante Alighieri, a poet rather than an astronomer, is nevertheless remarkable for the extent to which he wove the astronomical conceptions of his day – principally Ptolemaic and Aristotelian – into the fabric of one of the greatest literary and imaginative works of the Middle Ages, his Divina Commedia(Divine Comedy).

Dante was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione Alighieri and his first wife, Bella. From youth to middle age, Dante was involved in politics. However, at the turn of the century, the ruling party in Florence, the Guelphs, split into two factions, the “Blacks” and the “Whites,” and with the victory of the Blacks, Alighieri, who was a White, went into permanent exile from his beloved native city. Because of his exile, he was also permanently separated from his wife of some years, Gemma di Manetto Donati, with whom he had fathered four children, Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia Beatrice. One of his consolations in exile was that Alighieri could still behold the stars as if he were in Florence.

Between 1306 and the end of his life, Dante composed his masterpiece, the Divina Commediain three parts: the Inferno(or Hell), Purgatory, and Paradise. These parts comprise “cantos” (34, 33, and 33, respectively, for a perfect total of 100), which are in turn made up of interlocking stanzas of three lines that rhyme aba, bcb, cdc, and so on, a poetic form known as terzarima. The poem unfolds as a cosmically structured autobiographical narrative, each part representing a journey into, or up to, the realm indicated by its respective title. In the Inferno, Dante journeys downward from the surface of the Earth through the “circles” of hell until he reaches the dead center of Earth and of the Universe, where he finds Lucifer, not burning in fire but immobilized in ice, with both his head and his feet pointing upward, though (logically, because he is at the center) in opposite directions. Carrying on past the center and upward into the Southern Hemisphere, Dante, the narrator, arrives at and climbs Mount Purgatory, achieving at its pinnacle a literal and figurative state of Edenic innocence, and so is prepared for the further ascent to Paradise. This final journey takes Dante up through the (Ptolemaic) spheres, or “wheels,” of the planets to that of the fixed stars, and past it to the Primum Mobile, beyond which is the Empyrean. At this stage, however, as he looks still farther outward, Dante finds that in fact, he is looking in. The Empyrean is thus conceived of as encompassing our universe, which in the allegory nevertheless emerges as peripheral to, and outside of, the Empyrean. Robert Osserman has suggested that, in this respect, Dante’s idea of a numinous, singular point of light from which “hang the heavens and all nature” (Paradiso, 28) is consonant with the much later, initially counterintuitive but cosmologically significant non-Euclidean geometry that undergirds Big Bang cosmology.

Whether Dante was cosmologically original or not, the Divina Commediaenriches one’s understanding of the astronomy of the high Middle Ages, and an awareness of that astronomy in turn enriches one’s reading of Dante’s masterpiece. The poem’s astronomical orientation is essential to both its narrative and its allegory, since the stars function as physical guides, spiritual inspiration, intellectual enrichment, and structural symbol. The first canto of each of its three parts establishes some astronomical reference. Even the gloomy first canto of the Infernois brightened by morning,

and in his native sign

The Sun climbed with the stars whose glitterings

Attended on him when the Love Divine

First moved those happy, prime-created things.

Such moments of astronomical awareness recur at crucial moments throughout the Divina Commedia. The Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisoeach conclude with the word stelle(“stars”). And the entire poem’s final lines, echoing   Anicius Boëthius ’s hymn to Universal Love from the Consolation of Philosophy, fuse the order and divine orientation of both microcosm and macrocosm:

as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,

My will and my desire were turned by love,

The love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Selected References

  1. Cornish, Alison (2000). Reading Dante’s Stars. New Haven: Yale University Press. (The most complete recent guide to astronomy in the Divina Commedia.)Google Scholar
  2. Danielson, Dennis (ed.) (2000). The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus, esp. Chap. 15, “From This Point Hang the Heavens,” pp. 89–91.Google Scholar
  3. Dante Alighieri (1939). The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, translated by John D. Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press. (Useful for its presentation of the Italian text with prose translation, and for its commentary.)Google Scholar
  4. — (1949–1962). The Divine Comedy. London: Penguin. (Vol. 1, Hell, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, contains a useful, short section on “Dante’s Universe,” pp. 292–295. Vol. 3, Paradise, translated by Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, adds a further note, “Astronomy in Paradise,” pp. 350–351.)Google Scholar
  5. Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1936). The Great Chain of Being. (Reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1960.)Google Scholar
  6. Osserman, Robert (1995). Poetry of the Universe: A Mathematical Exploration of the Cosmos. New York: Doubleday, esp. pp. 89–91.Google Scholar
  7. Peterson, Mark A. (1979). “Dante and the 3-Sphere.” American Journal of Physics47: 1031–1035. (The most thorough available discussion of the geometry of Paradiso, 28 and of Dante’s cosmos.)ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada