Cosmological and Philosophical World of Dante Alighieri

«The Divine Comedy» as a Medieval Vision of the Universe

by Jacek Grzybowski (Author)
©2015 Monographs 157 Pages


The book analyses the medieval vision of the world as depicted in Dante Alighieri’s poetic works. In detail it discusses two works, The Banquet and The Divine Comedy, and offers a view on politics, faith and the universe of the medieval period. For modern people that period with its debates, polemics and visions represents something exceedingly remote, obscure and unknown. While admiring Dante’s poetic artistry, we often fail to recognize the inspirations that permeated the works of medieval scholars and poets. Although times are constantly changing, every generation has to face the same fundamental questions of meaning, purpose and value of human existence: Dante’s cosmological and poetical picture turns out to be surprisingly universal.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Florence – the city of faith, art and politics
  • I. Dante Alighieri – science, politics and art
  • 1) Europe in the Middle Ages
  • 2) Florence – the city and its history
  • 3) Social conflicts and clashes
  • 4) Dante, Guelphs and Ghibellines
  • 5) Political desires of the poet
  • 6) The Scientific way of Dante
  • 7) Dante’s works
  • II. The Convivio – theology and cosmology
  • 1) Aristotelianism in medieval Europe
  • 2) The power of philosophy
  • 3) The Noble Lady
  • 4) Cosmological models of the universe
  • 5) The medieval universe of knowledge
  • 6) The hierarchy of sciences in the model of the cosmos
  • 7) The consequences of the division of science into the spheres of space
  • 8) The meeting of philosophy, faith and love
  • 9) Philosophy as a preparatio fidei
  • 10) The Banquet – the struggle of poetry, reason and faith
  • III. The Divine Comedy – major themes
  • 1) Alone in the the dark woods
  • 2) Inferno
  • 3) Purgatorium
  • 4) Paradise
  • IV. In the Dantesque theatrum mundi
  • 1) Journey to the afterlife – sources and inspirations
  • 2) Cosmology and geography in the world of Dante
  • 3) The Prime Unmoved Mover
  • 4) Dante’s spherical geometry
  • 5) The spiritual nature of the cosmos
  • 6) The world endowed with inherent sense
  • 7) Travel as an act of purification
  • 8) The scandal of existence of the Hell
  • 9) The Gentiles and children – the issue of limbo
  • 10) Cato as a model of heroism?
  • 11) Dante and Ulysses – a pilgrim and an explorer
  • 12) Aristotelianism, Thomism and Averroism of Dante Alighieri
  • 13) The difference of Dante’s world
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

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Florence – the city of faith, art and politics

Florence is full of life. Eight million tourists from all over the world – Japan, Canada, the United States, Korea, India and Poland – traipse through the small and narrow streets of the old town of Florence. Wandering along Via della Condotta or Trebbio, they finally reach a sun-drenched Piazza – della Signoria or Antinori. Among the signs marking various streets and squares there are also names closely associated with the turbulent history of this town, full of violent and bloody turns – Via Guelfa and Via Ghibellina. There is also the small street named after one of the most famous Florentines and one of the greatest poets ever known – Dante Alighieri. The street is squeezed in amongst tall apartment buildings and houses, one of which – Casa di Dante – belonged, according to the legend, to the poet’s family.

Everything in this town is imbued with history. The history attracts people to it, pervading the walls, streets and squares, even if it is only an illustrated traveling gadget for global nomads’ recreation. Florence is not just one of many, not only Italian towns where wandering along the streets, gates and squares is a journey through the European culture, art and history.

Florence, the hometown of Dante Alighieri, the town of merchants, knights, princes, monks and brilliant artists, is in itself a work of art, a great museum and a space of artistic ecstasy. A walk around Florence resembles a journey through the history of human creativity and immortal glory. Behind the medieval walls surrounded by the picturesque Tuscan hills the history had often taken sharp turns as the love of freedom clashed with tyrannical inclinations, bloody feuds mingled with the sounds of church bells, and bold, although heretical, ideas were burned at the stake. This is the place where the forms of the medieval organization of guilds, trading, banking and arts patronage, always in need of financial support, originated and took shape. When the fortunes perished and their owners were forgotten, what was left was something more valuable than gold – the art.

A walk around Florence is at the same time a journey through the history of Christianity which left its distinct mark on the architecture and the whole area of this city, where tradition meets modernity. Christianity is inherently present here, it can be felt emanating from the inside. Actually, there is no street, square or building where you could not recognise the impact of outstanding artists imprinting on the medieval Christianitas the signs of faith. It is a city of churches and museums, where you can feel a tangible expression of Christian symbols. Biblical, ancient, church, historical contents penetrate walls and streets. Everything here wants to speak about God and the history of His redemptive love. ← 9 | 10 →

However, Florence is primarily a tourist city: there are thousands and millions of people who come here from all over the globe to see and admire the artistic beauty of those who lived and worked here. A self-guided walking tour in Florence, on a warm day in July, in the midst of dozens of passers-by and the multiplicity of languages, has for me yet another meaning, apart from its aesthetic dimension. I have the impression that something marvelous is going on. Here millions of people behold and admire the greatest works accomplished in the spirit of Christian faith. But even though the tourists are impressed by the cathedrals’ enormity, the sculptures’ genius, by frescoes and beautiful craftsmanship of shaded temples, they did not belong to this wonderful world any more. They live in the post-Christian era. The bizarre paradox manifests itself in the fact that these global tourists, who come from the farthest corners of the world to see the kaleidoscope of beauty and marvel at the artistic phenomenon resulting from the spirit of the Christian faith, do not see and do not understand its real meaning. The artist, who expressed his creed in his work, cannot “meet” in the Florentine churches and museum halls with the recipient, who would share with him the community of faith. Tourists – passers-by – do not understand and, more importantly, do not get hold of the depth of content, because they already belong to the world in which Christianity is basically regarded as one of the stages in the history of art, a period of time somewhere in the past, which is remained of solely by the museum exhibits. Hence, I agree with Giorgio Agamben: the city where issues of faith and of the Church, the Pope and the Emperor, sin and repentance were so much valued and fought for, has become a “museum” in which Christian symbols and contents appear to be mere props in a “presentation of history” which ended a long time ago. The city was turned into the museum – the spiritual power of faith that defined and consolidated the once existing city residents’ lives has withdrawn into the quiet and shadowy museum halls1.

The tourists of the post-Christian era who are strolling through this “museum” often do not understand what fundamental issues, cases and events the characters and symbols preserved in paintings, sculptures, and frescoes refer to. Those passers-by, who after leaving the museum immediately plunge back into their own affairs and problems, lead a life very distant from that reflected in the Bible and the Christian message. They take pictures, record videos, browse through albums and guidebooks, but are utterly unable to see the ongoing enthronement of Christianity. Despite the admiration for the excellent masterpieces and artistic ability, the spirit of faith which gave inspiration and guided the artist’s hand is ← 10 | 11 → not revealed to them. The world of Christian values is for those tourists locked in paintings and sculptures – forever, as it appears to be. They are “outside” – they have left this half-forgotten world, following the media and popular culture, and do not belong to it anymore.

Therefore, it is difficult to understand the world described in the texts of the famous son of this city – Dante Alighieri. He lived in a culture in which Christian truths marked the day, week, year and all the stages of life, revealing the meaning and purpose of human existence. He was rooted in a world in which not only the Church disputes, but also philosophical discourse, economic controversies and political conflicts were Christian in nature. It is difficult to read Dante’s verses not only due to translation misunderstandings but also, and perhaps more importantly, because Dante wrote for the reader perfectly acquainted with the Bible, mythology, Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophical concepts, medieval legends and 14th-century Florentine and Tuscan “news”2.

Preparing a book about the world view unfolded in the texts of the Italian poet, I have to honestly admit, as Jorge Luis Borges did, “that I have not read all the comments to the works of Dante Alighieri”, but again, as the Argentinian writer observed, nobody has! There is an immeasurable amount and, if put together, they would probably create a huge library. Over the centuries Dante scholars have written countless comments, interpretations and questions for almost every word recorded by the Florentine, especially for his incomparable work – the Commedia. Every verse, each triplet of the poem, are faced by religious, mythological, historical and astronomical references. Dante’s poem is a universal footnotes, there are no words which would be unjustified3.

One of the major contributors to Dante studies was the Italian philologist and politician Michele Barbi (1867–1941). In his study of Dante’s works he explicitly warned against methodological fanaticism and risky hypotheses as having no sound basis. According to him, Dante cannot be regarded as a philosopher or politician only, there being the need for the synthesis of ideological elements with the message conveyed through his poetry. A multilateral study of the mentality and history of the Middle Ages is indispensable for a proper assessment of Dante’s works. Focusing on the aesthetic and poetic aspects of the poet’s works without proper historical, philosophical and theological background leads to a considerable misunderstanding. Without trying to grasp the image and vision of ← 11 | 12 → the world that imbued the minds of contemporaneous generations we will not understand the work of the great Italian author. The strangeness of medieval world can darken our perception and discourage reading while reinforcing Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s impression of great distance – separates these texts from us and our world about six hundred years4.

Thus, the multiplicity of various interpretations and possible meanings surrounds Dante. In this book I propose my own modest comment, which is rather an attempt of bringing closer to the reader the cosmological picture of the universe along with all the impact the geocentric model had on the mentality of the medieval Europeans, based on Dante’s two most famous works – The Banquet and The Divine Comedy. It is also an attempt to identify the sources and themes, both philosophical and theological, which permeate Dante’s vision of the cosmos and space. I also seek to demonstrate and clarify the specific character of this model of the universe and in particular the places inhabited by people, countless souls of the dead, demons, angels and God himself. This book is a revised and supplemented version of the work which appeared in a Polish edition in 2009 under the title: “Theatrum Mundi. Cosmology and theology of Dante Alighieri”.

Fr. dr hab. Jacek Grzybowski

Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw

1 Cf. G. Agamben, Profanations, transl. J. Fort, New York 2007, p. 84

2 Cf. P. Salwa, Dante uwspółcześniony, “Literatura na Świecie”, no. 7/8 (2004), p. 408.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
mittelalterliche Weltsicht Kosmologie menschliche Existenz
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 157 pp.

Biographical notes

Jacek Grzybowski (Author)

Jacek Grzybowski is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw and a lecturer at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Warsaw.


Title: Cosmological and Philosophical World of Dante Alighieri