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Sir John Gielgud as Virgil

Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Beatrice


Born in 1265 of a prosperous and well-connected family, Dante had, by the age of thirty, distinguished himself in battle, married advantageously (his wife, the seldom mentioned Gemma, was a member of the influential Donati family) and had been named a member of the Special Council of the Republic (a forum made up of its eighty leading citizens). In literary circles he was already well known as a love poet.

The year 1300 (the date of the action of the Inferno) was a turning point. Already an accredited ambassador, he was elected to the governing body of the city. Florence was however a divided state, split between the warring factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and eventually factions within factions, as the Guelphs divided into two parties, the Black and the White. In short, Dante ended up on the wrong side. 'Just halfway through this journey of our life', as he reminds us at the very beginning of his poem, he entered the 'Dark Wood' of political intrigue and emotional turmoil from which he would never escape (as he does in his fiction) into serenity.

Sent to Rome as an ambassador to the Pope on behalf of the city, he found himself condemned in his absence, on a trumped up charge of barratry (corrupt dealing in public offices), to two years' banishment and a huge fine. Later (in 1302) he learned that his house had been sacked, his possessions confiscated and that he had been sentenced again, this time to be burned alive should he ever return home.

The remaining two decades of his life were spent in restless and embittered exile. Although he was often well looked after by the various aristocratic patrons who protected and sheltered him, and in whose castles he managed to turn the mediaeval allegory he had started in Florence into the first poetic masterpiece of the modern era, he never ceased to hope that he would return to his native city in triumph. He died in Ravenna in 1321.


It is Beatrice, taking pity on Dante from her vantage point in Heaven, who has sent Virgil to guide him through Hell and up into Mount Purgatory (in the Purgatorio, Book Two of The Divine Comedy). She herself takes over as his guide when he reaches Heaven (in Book Three, the Paradiso).

Dante and Beatrice are linked forever by name as inseparable lovers. In fact, they hardly ever met. She was born in 1266 and died in her thirty-fourth year (as a married woman with children). Though Dante, to judge from his earlier poems and those of his friends, was no stranger to romantic and sexual adventure in early life, his love for Beatrice was pure, almost abstract, in the mediaeval tradition of Courtly Love.

The nearest modern equivalent would be that unfulfillable devotion to a film star (with its rituals of scrapbook, anniversary shrine and fan letter) which can be maintained throughout a quite normal emotional life with the people of one's reality.


Virgil was the great poet of Imperial Rome, and author of the Aeneid, an epic poem dealing with the birth of the Roman Empire. Its hero, Aeneas, comes from the flames of Troy and, through trials of will in the face of danger, battle and, of course, love (in the person of Dido whom we meet in Canto V), wins through to found the city.

Virgil is summoned by Beatrice from the castle of the virtuous pagans (he was born in 70 BC and therefore not baptised), a cosy corner in Limbo reminiscent of an Oxbridge college, to be Dante's guide in Hell.