Dante Alighieri, as any reader of the Divina Commedia can attest, was a consummate artist; and like any great artist he offers us in his work a vision, at once personal and universal, of the life of his times. The purpose of this chapter is to look behind this truism with a view to discerning how Dante perceived the society with which he was familiar and also what he made of – both what he thought about and, in his poetry and prose, created out of – the facts of social and political life in the period (1265–1321) through which he lived. Dante was no neutral observer of these social and political realities, but a poet who wrote in full consciousness of the intellectual, social, political, and religious affiliations and commitments which gave form and meaning to his life as he lived it and (even more important) relived it, in memory and imagination, in his verse. It might be as well to begin, therefore, by setting Dante in his social and cultural context and declaring his interests; for these naturally shaped the vision of contemporary society which he presents in his work and also the vision for that society which he develops, publicises, and promotes: the ideal against which he measures and finds wanting the civil and ecclesiastical polity of his day.
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