Posts Tagged With: life

Assisi: Saint Francis’ Life and Giotto’s cycle of frescoes in the Basilica

Frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi

By Bettine Carey

In 1228, two years after his death, a basilica was built in the Rose City in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. This basilica was constructed in three parts: the crypt where Saint Francis’s remains are buried, a lower level and the upper level. The basilica was consecrated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV, after which the work on the frescos commenced. The walls of both the lower and the upper levels are covered in beautiful frescos completed by a variety of talented artists. Because of the lack of reliable documentation from the time period, there is some debate about who all the artists were, and which frescos they completed. This paper will look into the different artists who played a part in the completion of the frescos while acknowledging the controversies surrounding the ownership of the paintings.

 The Lower Level of the Basilica

Because of the hilly landscape of Assisi, the lower level of the basilica of Saint Francis was built into the side of the hill, giving it the feeling of being underground. The lower level of the basilica was completed in 1230, about ten years before the completion of the upper level. The ceiling of the lower level is painted a dark blue, giving the impression of a night sky overhead. The paintings on the walls of the lower level of the basilica are covered in colorful frescos, which add an air of lightness to the feeling of nighttime.

The frescos on the walls of the lower level of the basilica depict the life of Christ, the Virgin, and the life of Saint Francis. The completion of these frescos took place between the 14th and 17th centuries, during the Renaissance time period. The Renaissance was a period of mastering the art of perfection. The idea of the “perfect” Renaissance man was outlined in The Book of the Courtier, written by Baldassare Castiglione among other authors. A Renaissance man should be knowledgeable in many fields of study: literature, history, politics, art and so on. Renaissance artists practiced in many different mediums; painting, sculpture, architecture and more. Because of the wide range of mediums they were capable of working with, many artists were well known in more than one area of art. Many of the artists who painted the frescos in Saint Francis’s basilica were well-known sculptors, or architects in addition to painters. Only the best Renaissance artists were recruited for the decorating of important monuments. Because of the scarcity of documents regarding this time period, there is some uncertainty regarding the exact identities of the artists who contributed to the frescos in the Saint Francis basilica, but some conclusions regarding the specific artists can be drawn from the few documents and artistic comparisons available today.

In the nave of the lower level of the basilica, an artist who was never named, simply called the Master of Saint Francis, painted five scenes comparing events from the life of Saint Francis to episodes from Christ’s life. The comparison between Saint Francis and Christ is continued to the right of the alter in the form of images showing the infancy of both figures. It is thought that the artist Giotto di Bondone completed this painting, although no one knows for certain. Other artists who contributed to the decoration of the lower part of the basilica are Lorenzo Lorenzetti, Cesare Sermei di Orvieto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Dono Doni, and Giacomo Giorgetti.

The lower level of the basilica of Saint Francis is also home to the remains of the Saint. Due to the fear of tomb raiders, Saint Francis’s body was buried in the crypt and sealed off until around 1818 when they were finally rediscovered. There are other bodies buried with Saint Francis in the crypt, his first four followers: Friar Leo, Friar Masseo, Friar Rufino, and Friar Angleo.

 The Upper Level of the Basilica


The sidewalls of the upper level are covered with frescos of events from Saint Francis’s life. It is thought that the artist Giotto di Bondone painted these frescos, although there is some controversy surrounding this topic. Giotto di Bondone was born in 1266 or 1267 near Florence, Italy. Because of the lack of documentation from that time period, much of Giotto’s life is subject to debate. Customary to the tradition, Giotto started his artistic career as an apprentice; he may have been apprenticed to Cimabue, although it is not certain because of the lack of documentation. Around 1290, when Cimabue traveled to Assisi to make his contribution to the frescos of the lower level of the Saint Francis basilica, Giotto went with him. It was during this time period that the frescos in the upper level of the basilica were supposedly painted by Giotto.

An alternative perspective believes that instead of Giotto, three other masters painted the Franciscan frescos. Those three masters were the Master of Legend of St. Francis, the Master of Obsequies of St. Francis, and the Cecilia Master. Regardless of who the artists were, the frescos in the Saint Francis basilica remain to this day one of the greatest cycle of frescos of the time period.

In 1228, in conjunction with the commission of the basilica of Saint Francis, Thomas of Celano was commissioned to write a book on Saint Francis’s life. As per usual for books about Saints during that time period, Tomas’s work was filled with half-truths and various versions of the truth of Saint Francis’s life that would portray the saint in the best light. Despite the inconsistencies in the text, Thomas of Celano’s work remains one of the most informative texts regarding the life of Saint Francis. The frescos in the upper level of the basilica of Saint Francis are all based on events that took place in Thomas of Celano’s book.

The 28 frescos that line the walls of the upper level of the basilica of Saint Francis depict events from the saints life that tell the story of his journey through a life of poverty and holiness. The cycle of frescos also serves as a template for how the Franciscan Friars should live their lives. Art scholars think that Giotto, or his school, painted 25 of the 28 frescos, the other three were painted by the Saint Cecilia Master.

In addition to the decorations in the great hall of the upper level of the basilica, the transept, cross vaults, and apses also boast beautiful frescos. These frescos, 34 in total, show events from the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The artists responsible for these works of art include Cimabue and his school, Giotto, and Jacopo Torriti.


The frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis are exemplary of the traditional style of art during the 13th to 17th centuries, documenting the life of not only Saint Francis, but also Christ and the Virgin. The importance of these frescos goes beyond the face value. They represent the history of Saint Francis, the life of Christ, the devotion of the Virgin, they provide current Friars with a template for how they should live their lives. The art in the basilica of Saint Francis will remain influential to Italian culture for many years to come.

Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis. (n.d.). Italian Tourism Official Website. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis. (n.d.). Italian Tourism Official Website. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from
Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites. (n.d.). – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Assisi: San Francesco. (n.d.). ARTstor Library. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from
Burr, D., & Halsall, P. (1996, January 1). Medieval Sourcebook: Thomas of Celano: Lives of St. Francis. Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Giotto di Bondone. (2014, April 28). Wikipedia. Retrieved May 3, 2014, from
Potter, P. (2002). Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337). St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1290). Emerging Infectious Diseases, 8(12), 1531-1531.
Saint Francis cycle in the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi. (2014, January 17). Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from
The Basilica of St Francis and the Sacro Convento. (n.d.). Assisi OnLine. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from



The Life of St. Francis

By Francesca Marino

Legend has it that in the Italian city of Gubbio there once lived a terrifying and ferocious wolf that ate the citizens and animals living in the town. Many people left Gubbio due to their fear of the wolf. A very passionate and brave man decided this could not go any further; this brave man chose to go forth and confront the wolf. When the wolf was found the man made the sign of the cross and asked if the wolf would please no longer cause any harm to the citizens and animals of Gubbio and in return they would always make sure the wolf was well fed. The man then stood in front of the town, with the wolf at his side, and claimed the wolf had done evil only out of hunger but did not intend to cause harm. The brave man then made a pact between the wolf and the citizens of Gubbio to be brothers with one another and since then no harm was ever caused by the wolf again. This brave man is no other than Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Francis of Assisi was born with the name Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone during 1182 in the town of Assisi located in Umbria, Italy. The exact birthdate of St. Francis is not known. He was one of seven children in a very wealthy silk merchants family. Francis’s mother, Pica Bourlemont, had Francis baptized under the name Giovanni but his father, Pietro Bernardone, quickly decided to give him nickname Francesco, meaning “the Frenchman”, which was then shortened to Francis. Due to the families wealth Francis was provided with a life of luxury.

Francis lived a rather spoiled youth, one very typical to a young man from a merchant’s family. Everyone loved him and attended to all his meticulous needs. Francis spent his adolescence at wild parties that surrounded his life in sin; nothing Francis said or did was rooted by good intentions. He achieved to live up to all his fathers expectations. Francis was a good businessman and invested his love in France, which is exactly what his father wanted but all this did not satisfy Francis, he wanted more. Francis wanted to go to war; he set out to fight as a knight in battle when Assisi declared was on Perugia.

The first war did not meet Francis’s expectations, he soon found himself with chains around his ankles in a gloomy dungeon. Francis was captured as a prisoner and used for ransom where he was not released until a year later. In attempt to take on war again Francis set out as a knight for the Fourth Crusade. This is where he received his first, unexpected, calling.

On the first night out at war Francis had a dream where God told him that he had everything all wrong and should return home immediately, and so that is exactly what he did. Despite all the shame and humiliation he received from his father and peers for giving up in battle Francis aimed his goals towards something greater. Francis realized he had lost his zest to life and then began to invest an immense amount of his time in prayer and set out to build a powerful relationship with God; the vision deepened his ecclesiastical awakening.

Francis then took part in a pilgrimage to Rome; on this journey he joined the poor in begging at the doors of churches. One evening at the church of San Damiano while Francis was praying he heard Christ on the crucifix speak to him saying “Francis, Francis, go repair My house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins.” (Thompson 1) Francis took this vision from Christ too literally; he thought Christ wanted him to repair the church that he was physically in at the moment. So he gathered fabric from his fathers shop and sold it to get money to repair the crumbling church. When Francis’s father heard what he had done, he considered it an act of theft and punished Francis by forcing him to stand before the Bishop of Assisi and the town to return the money. Here Francis not only returned the money but also stripped off all his clothes. He then turned to the crowd and said “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” (Dominic) During the following months Francis lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi.

Francis vowed to give up all his possessions and take on a life of poverty when he heard a sermon about Mathew 10:9. He now had nothing but everything he could possibly need. Francis then began to preach about devoting his life to God and to show obedience towards the church. One by one people began coming to Francis, they desperately wanted to live the life Francis was living. “His companions came from all walks of life, from fields and towns, nobility and common people, universities, the Church, and the merchant class.” (Brand 144)

Once Francis gained followers he began to see the purpose and reasoning as to why God has brought him to this point in his life. In 1209, Francis and his eleven followers went to Rome to request permission from Pope Innocent III for a new religious order. When Francis and his beggars arrived to Rome the Pope was so shocked by their appearance they were immediately thrown out. A few days after the friars arrival the Pope then had a dream about a “…tiny man in rags holding up the tilting Lateran basilica.” (Montgomery 1) The Pope saw this as a sign from God and immediately after this envision Francis was called back by the Pope and grated permission to preach. On April 16, 1210 the Franciscan Order was founded.

In 1209, while Francis was preaching in the church of San Ruffino in Assisi, Clare of Assisi stood in the crowd. Fracis’s words touched her deeply and helped her realize her calling. Francis and Clare began to work together and they then established the Order of Poor Ladies, which is now known as Poor Clares. This Order for women gave women the opportunity to seek out a life similar to those in the Franciscan Order.

Shortly after the Poor Clares grew very large and the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance was formed for those who could carry out the principles of Franciscan life in their day-to-day lives.

In 1219 Francis set off for a journey to Egypt where he hoped to covert the Sultan of Egypt, where a crusader army was located. Here it is documented that Francis unhesitatingly entered into a fire and came our suffering no burns. This incident is illustrated in the 13th Century Fresco Cycle, done by Giotto, which is located in the Basilica of Assisi today.

Francis soon had another vision, in this one he saw the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. This vision was unlike his others and because of it he received the stigmata. Saint Francis is the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion. The wounds weakened Francis and brought his life to a peaceful end on October 3rd, 1226.

In my mind, Francis stands out and shines bright in particular related to other saints due to his love of nature. Francis felt that nature is God’s creations and nature was not only something he liked to admire but felt that it was a part of his brotherhood. It is a powerful thing to ponder how St. Francis considered a hawk his brother just as much as he did the Pope. It has been noted that Francis was capable of communicating with animals in ways that go beyond the average human capability. For example, how Francis was able to communicate with the wolf of Gubbio.

On July 16th, 1228 Saint Francis of Assisi was proclaimed a saint by pope Gregory IX. St. Francis is known as the patron saint of animals, the environment, and is one of the two patron saints of Italy. October 4th is the national ‘Feast Day’ a holiday created in the honor of Saint Francis where the Catholic church holds ceremonies to bless the animals. Along with being an Italian Catholic friar and preacher he also is documented as being the first Italian poet. It is amazing to imagine the accomplishments he made during one lifetime. Saint Francis of Assisi impacted the teachings of the Catholic Church in ways that will never be forgotten. St. Francis continues to be a prominent role model in my life, as I wish to approach life by finding value in love and nature not in possessions.


Works Cited

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile. The Cambridge History of Italian

    Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Dominic, Dustin. “St Francis of Assisi Full Movie.” YouTube.

YouTube, 10 May 2013. Web. 05 May 2014.

Montgomery, Brian. “St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels –

Catholic Online.” St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.

Paschal, Robinson (1913). “St. Francis of Assisi“. Catholic Encyclopedia.

New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Ruth, Margaret The Word made flesh: a history of Christian thought

September 25, 2009.

Thompson, Anne B. “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction |

Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects. E. Gordon Watley, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.



By Khyra Wilhelm

Assisi is a small town settled high in the slopes of Mount Subasio in the the central region of Umbria, and has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy due to its historical, cultural and religious significance.[1] Saint Francis was a man of great importance in Italy, who lived and died in Assisi, and to whom the city’s most important monument is dedicated: the Basilica of Saint Francis. He was regarded by his followers with incredible devotion and reverence due to his religious instruction and his character, which is embodied in the construction of the basilica. The basilica is important not only as an artistic and architectural triumph, but because it is largely reflective of the importance of Saint Francis and his life work.


Saint Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. As a young man Francis enjoyed the easy, luxurious life of a privileged family and is often cited as a “free-spending playboy” in his youth.[2] During the battles between Perugia and Assisi in which he fought, Francis was captured and after a year as a prisoner of war he was ransomed by his rich father.[3] The following year was spent recovering from a sickness that Francis had contracted during his time of imprisonment, which led to an intense introspective period.[4] After his recovery Francis left Assisi with the intention of joining the Fourth Crusade as a knight but returned, much to the scorn of his father and friends, after experiencing religious visions of Christ and Mary.[5] Upon his return to Assisi Francis took to the streets preaching and soon had many followers. If not a knight, Francis’ father expected his son to work for the family business, but Francis renounced all legal claims to the family fortune, stripped off his expensive clothes and adopted a life based on that of Jesus and the Apostles, a life of poverty.[6] It was during this time that Francis began to write; these poems were religious in nature and the first to be written in the Italian language, instead of Latin, giving the poor access to religious literature.[7] As he traveled, Francis preached of poverty, repentance and compassion for the poor and sick.

The Basilica of Saint Francis is comprised of two separate churches on different levels, the Upper Basilica and the Lower Basilica, as well as a crypt, in which the body of Saint Francis is interred. The basilica is situated on the far west end of the city, atop a hillside previously called the Colle d’Inferno, the Hill of Hell, because it was where criminals were put to death on the gallows. This land was property of the Papacy and, after the death and canonization of Saint Francis, was donated for the construction of the church; thereafter the hill became known as the Colle di Paradiso, or the Hill of Heaven.[8] The basilica was decorated by numerous late Medieval painters from Roman, Tuscan, Florentine and Sienese schools, built in both Romanesque and Gothic styles, and for this reason it is a beautiful example of the development of art during the Italian Middle Ages.[9] The Basilica of Saint Francis has played a significant role in establishing the most typical characteristics of Italian Gothic architecture and uses the fresco as the main artistic feature and medium for conveying religious messages, rather than stained glass.[10] For this reason, the basilica has influenced the development of art and architecture within Italy.[11] The frescoes inside the Basilica were painted by Giotto, Cimabue (Giotto’s master), the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini, arguably the greatest painters of the 13th and 14th century.[12] Assisi has become an important pilgrimage site, for both its religious and spiritual significance as well as its artistic and architectural significance.


The Upper Basilica is open and expansive, with soaring Gothic columns and decorated in bright colors. It contains the world famous frescoes painted by Giotto and his school in the late 1290s–twenty-eight panels in rich detail surround the room in the lower part of the nave depicting the life of Saint Francis according to the Legenda Major, the 1266 biography of Saint Francis by Saint Bonaventure.[13] Beginning on the right with “Francis Honored by the Simple Man,” and continuing clock-wise, viewers follow the progression of the life of Saint Francis, his funeral, posthumous miracles and canonization. Although these frescoes are thought to be the work of Giotto, the true authorship is still disputed as to whether the frescoes were completed by the master or his students. The upper part of the nave contains a cycle of thirty-four scenes from the Old and New Testament, painted by followers of Cimabue and the Roman School. The works of Cimabue can also be seen in the cross vaults, transept and apses. The main entrance and the facade of the Upper Basilica was built between 1280 and 1300 in a Gothic style with a large, ornate rose window above the door. This rose window and other stained glass within the church are among some of the best examples of Medieval glasswork in Italy.[14]   

In stark contrast to the light and spacious Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica is darker and more austere. The lower part of the church reflects the Romanesque style and was designed by Brother Elias, one of Saint Francis’ first and most loyal followers, to resemble a huge crypt, giving it a low-hanging ceiling with ribbed vaults and hues of dark blue with golden stars.[15] An unknown artist began the frescoes of the nave in 1260, making these the oldest in the church. It was also decorated by the grand masters of the Florentine and Sienese schools of the 1300s, including Giotto and his inner circle, Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti.[16] Five scenes from the Passion of Christ decorate right side while the left depicts five scenes from the Life of Saint Francis; in placing the two stories side by side in this juxtaposition Saint Francis is compared to Christ.[17]

Saint Francis died on October 3rd, 1226 and the following day construction of the basilica began. It is believed that plans for construction had already begun prior to both his death and his canonization in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX. However, after his death, the body of Saint Francis was secretly buried by Brother Elias and the other friars in the Basilica of Saint Claire for fear that followers would raid the tomb and spread his body as relics.  After the completion of the Lower Basilica in 1230 the body was moved to the secret crypt in the Basilica of Saint Francis and was only rediscovered in 1818, then opened for pilgrims to visit the burial place of the saint. The construction of the Upper Basilica began in 1239 and lasted until 1253. At the completion of both churches, Upper and Lower, Pope Innocent IV consecrated the site and later, in 1288, the church was raised to the status of a Papal Church by Pope Nicholas IV. The popularity of the church increased in the years after its construction and from 1270 to 1350 side chapels were added for noble families, destroying the preexisting frescoes in the opening of the walls. In 1934 Saint Francis’ most faithful brothers–Brother Rufino, Brother Angelo, Brother Masseo and Brother Leo–were entombed in the corners around the alter. More recently, in 1997, the Umbria region was struck by two earthquakes that destroyed many venerable buildings, including the vault of the basilica, which crumbled into 3,000 pieces and killed four people.[18]

Behind the basilica is the friary Sacro Convento, made up of numerous Romanesque arches and buttresses that provide support for the entire building. The friary came into operation early in its history, in 1230, but construction continued over a long period, giving it a blend of styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. Given that the church was situated on a hillside and therefore had limited space for expansion, the main supporting wall was forced to stretch in the opposite direction, toward the city. This great wall resembles a fortress from the valley below. Today the friary has been converted into a museum containing works of art and relics donated by the pilgrims that have flocked to the city over the centuries.[19]


Saint Francis was a man extremely dedicated to God and to others; he believed that one must give from the heart, give love to those that have no love and peace for those who have no peace. Saint Francis was not a man to bargain with his faith and believed that truly following Christ meant leaving everything behind for spiritual devotion, because in order to be spiritually rich one cannot be materialistically rich. He believed in obedience to Christ, dedication to Poverty, and giving one’s life over to Chastity. People of all styles of life were drawn to Saint Francis for “his repudiation of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the church, his love for nature, and his humble, unassuming character earned him an enormous following throughout Europe, posing an unprecedented challenge to the decadent Papacy.”[20] In a period of clerical corruption and “dissatisfaction with opportunities for spiritual life and the expression available within the existing ecclesiastical and social structures,” Saint Francis embodied the belief that an ordinary layman could have a direct relationship with God.[21] Saint Francis brought about a changing of ideals in religion during the Middle Ages and represented a new movement toward personal religion. Saint Francis’ followers were drawn to the nature of his character–dedicated, committed, compassionate, selfless, and humble. Furthermore, “the short period of [the basilica’s] construction, rare for a church of this size, is often explained as a measure of the great love that the people of the time had for St. Francis.”[22] Even in the early 15th century pilgrims from all over Europe were making their way to Assisi to honor the saint. The creation of this great monument, the short period of its construction, the care taken to protect the body and the numerous important artists that decorated the church all point to the influence that Saint Francis had. The basilica is a reminder of the importance of Saint Francis, not only in his life and work, but among his followers as well.



“Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis.” Italian Tourism Official Website. Accessed May 5, 2014.      basilica-of-st-francis.html.

“Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power. Accessed       May 5, 2014.

“Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Last modified March     7, 2014.’Assisi.

Whatley, Gordon E., Thompson, Anne B., and Upchurch, Robert K.“The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction.” University of Rochester. Accessed May 5, 2014. http://    life-of-                                                                         saint-francis-introduction

Winke, Rebecca. “Saint Francis Basilica in Assisi.”, Italy Travel. Accessed May 5,      2014.

Zamora, Antonio. “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city.” Scientific Psychic. Accessed        May 5, 2014.


[1] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[2] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[3] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[4] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[5] [5] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[8] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis,” Italian Tourism Official Website, accessed May 5, 2014,

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[14] Winke, Rebecca,“Saint Francis Basilica in Assisi,”, Italy Travel, accessed May 5, 2014

[15] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[16] “Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis,” Italian Tourism Official Website, accessed May 5, 2014.

[17] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi,” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power, accessed May 5, 2014,

[21] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[22] “Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi,” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power, accessed May 5, 2014,

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Dante’s Life and Work

Dante: The Divine Comedy and Other Works

By Dara Webb

Dante Alighieri is heralded as the first and indeed one, if not the most, influential Italian poets of all time. Known specifically for his famous Divine Comedy, Dante often comments on religion, something so incredibly crucial to life during the 14th century; indeed, his other works, such as De Monarchia discuss religious law and as The Cambridge Guide to Dante states, “share this pattern of self-commentary” (Jacoff 35). While not as famous, his other works are just as crucial to the development of Italian literature and in the establishment of a vernacular Italian language and solidifying its importance.

Of course, Dante’s most famous work is the Divine Comedy, which follows Dante’s progression through Hell, Purgatory and, eventually, Heaven. The work incorporates figures important to Dante’s life on a multitude of levels. Dante includes Pope Boniface VIII as a figure which represents spiritual corruption, for example, a comment on the sour relationship between the two. The epic includes Beatrice as an angel as well as Virgil as Dante’s guide through Purgatory. The work contains, like most of Dante’s works, moral, religious, philosophical and political issues. Especially poignant is his experience in the second circle of Hell, where he encounters Paolo and Francesca; love is an important symbol in the Divine Comedy and that of Paolo and Francesca’s is a complicated example. As the two are in hell because of an unspecific love or lust, perhaps the example was more shocking at the time as it shows the line between both is narrow and often blurry, but there is an albeit subtle difference. At the end of Canto V, we see Dante faint, overcome by the story; perhaps this is because he recognizes this story could have been his and is overcome by emotion, especially as he seems to empathize, if not sympathize with their situation, “Thine agonies, Francesca/Sad and compassionate to weeping make me” (Alighieri 33). Ideas such as this, where lust is condemned as a sin by the Church and papacy, especially in Dante’s time, are advanced and even contradictory to papal authority and the traditional values of the time. This self-reflection, however, contributes to what has already been acknowledged as self-commentary.

La Vita Nuova is a collection of love poetry and Dante’s first work. La Vita Nuova was dedicated to Beatrice, a recurring figure in Dante’s work and a woman he loved, seemingly unrequited, even after her death. While in no respect Dante’s best work, La Vita Nuova is shocking for a thirteenth century work. It is “blasphemous in the way it glorifies a mortal woman” (Jacoff 36). As previously stated, the Church influenced almost all aspects of life at the time, and this glorification of Beatrice is another example of Dante pushing the boundaries of his time. The audience of La Vita Nuova was fairly restricted, mostly to poets within Dante’s circle, which may have shielded it from criticism from the Church. However, it is important to explore how even at the beginning of his career, young Dante still challenged the boundaries of papal rule and even moral and philosophical questions. Though this work did not reach the larger audience of his other works, it is an important example of Dante as a developing poet.

Dante’s Convivio differs to the previously mentioned works; it addresses philosophical arguments as well as some political, touching also on some basics of the sciences and arts. Most importantly, it is written in the Italian vernacular. This vernacular presentation of such things would have been incredibly important to society; it meant that the illiterate masses would have been able to have at least oral access to advances of the time. With the introduction of a vernacular to literature there was a movement towards mass literacy, but equally some form of education to the masses. The integration of a common Italian language to Italian literature is also a crucial development on Dante’s behalf; literature before this point may have been written in a region-specific dialect, but for the most part was written in Latin. With the introduction of a source of information written in a common language, it made the information a little less elitist; normally, education like this was reserved for a higher, male class. While common language literature may not have instituted class equality (but may have contributed towards it), it indeed made information a little more readily available to the lower classes – or those who had access to literature, at any rate. He changes his audience from primarily women to a primarily male one, and this is a large step forward from La Vita Nuova.

De Monarchia follows again in a similar vein as most of Dante’s other works; while indeed most of his works followed a religious path, De Monarchia discusses both religious and secular power. Dante’s viewpoints on these matters, regardless of De Monarchia, were controversial at best. His viewpoint on papal demands in Florence, for example, led to a conflict between himself and Pope Boniface VIII and Dante’s lifelong exile from his birthplace of Florence. To challenge the papacy or even promote discourse on papal rule was taboo; the Pope was the most powerful man in Europe at the time. Dante’s outright resistance and distaste for the Pope is evidence of his character, and he does not shield his personal views from much of his work. This is an important aspect as mentioned, including his self-commentary throughout his work.

De Vulgari Eloquentia was an essay written by Dante, dealing with the development of the vernacular language, and the relationship between Latin and the vernacular Italian language. The development and utilization of the a common language in literature has been an important development in the history of every country. Indeed, one of the biggest developments in the 16th century Reformation, for example, was the development of a vernacular bible instead of the only Latin, mass distributed vulgate. Though the Reformation was a few centuries after Dante, even during Dante’s time the majority of people were illiterate and most did not even understand Latin. The development of vernacular literature meant that the masses could at least understand what was being read to them, allowing a small step towards mass literacy. Indeed, he “insists from the outset on the greater nobility of the vernacular” (Jacoff 58). His belief in the mass use of a common language is perhaps a large step towards the common use of the vernacular in Italian poetry and indeed everyday life.de_vulgari_eloquentia

Dante Alighieri is aptly described as one of Italy’s most important poets. His works are diverse, but each addresses critical developments in what would become Italian society. Without the introduction of a vernacular Italian language, for example, Italian unity and mass literacy may have come far later. His criticisms of policies at the time and outright disagreements with some papal rule may have landed him in exile, but without these criticisms and essays it is impossible to tell how society reacted negatively to papal rule. Dante’s introduction of a common Italian language to poetry and political observations laid the foundation for later Italian poets and authors. Without his contributions, the Italian literary system would be unrecognizable, and Dante Alighieri has left an indelible mark on the Italian literary system.



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Public Domain, 1555. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. La Vita Nuova. Dover Publications, 2012. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. De Monarchia. Bibliolife, 2011. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. Public Domain, 1321. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. De Vulgari Eloquentia. Scrivere, 2012. iBook file.

Jacoff, Rachel. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Dante’s life

By Tamara Grasty


Dante Alighieri was born in Florence on May 12th in 1265. His family had a long standing history of political involvement which would later have a deep impact on his adult life and literary works. Around the time when he lost his mother in 1273 Pope Gregory IX and Charles of Anjou met to create peace between the city’s opposing Guelfs and Ghibellines; Dante was a Guelf. Guelf’s supported the political autonomy of Florence. The Ghibellines supported papal control which opposed the Hohenstaufen emperors. Charles Anjou had defeated the Hohenstaufen armies in Benevent around 1265 with approval from the papacy and the Guelfs. This made the Guelfs a powerful party in Florence around the time of Dante’s birth. By the end of the century, the Guelfs had splintered into White and Black factions as a result of family rivalries and differing economic interests and loyalty to the pope. The Blacks were more committed to Guelf and papal interests while the whites were more moderate. The early defeat of the Guelfs, known as Montaperti is mentioned in Inferno 10. The festival of this event may have been the source of such rich inspiration for Purgatoria or Paradiso. In addition to the political rivalries, there were rivalries between noble families, like the Donati and Cerchi. When he was nine he met Beatrice Portinari, his childhood love and a lifelong muse. When he was twelve, he was betrothed to Gemma Donati, a daughter of family friends.

During his adolescence he pretended not to like Beatrice in order to make her jealous and love him more. However, this plan backfired and instead she grew to dislike him. She eventually married someone else and he continued to admire her from afar. Dante’s father remarried and Dante had half sibling, Tana and Francesco, who were close to him. During his childhood, he attended grammar school run by the Dominicans and subsequently to the school of Santa Croce where he was trained in classical and Medieval Latin texts. There he encountered poetry and literature from the Provence and France. When Dante is 18, his father dies and he marries Gemma Donati. Together they have four children, Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, who were all named after apostles who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, and Antonia. This is when enters public life.

He was originally optimistic as it meant meeting aristocrats, office-holders, educators, poets and rich merchants. This would presumably lead to friendships with some of the most influential people in his area including Brunetto Latini, a prominent intellectual, Guido Cavalcanti, a poet, and Cino da Pistia, an aristocrat. This is also how he became acquainted with Nino Visconti and Guido da Polenta. This is where he first heard the legend of Paolo Malatesa and Francesca Polenta, which inspired a canto in the Inferno. By this point the lovers had already died although it had happened so recently that rumors still circulated. Because of that canto, people are still investigating their deaths.

In 1289 Dante was a soldier in the battle of Campaldino against Arezzo, this victory brought the Guelf party back into power. Despite his political and martial involvement, he kept writing. He wrote a collection of sonnets called Il Fiore, Vita Nuova and Il Detto. Vita Nuova contains allusions to his lifelong love, Beatrice and as a work it marks his shift in literary style as he tries to portray the unique, profound love. On June 8, 1290, Beatrice dies, devastating Dante. In addition to this, another blow is dealt as Pope Boniface VIII was inaugurated in 1294 after the death of Pope Celestine V. In 1294 Dante met King Charles Martel of Hungary.


A year later, Dante shifted his attention toward politics. In 1300, Dante became one of six Florentine Priors. During his two month tenure, from June 15th until August 15th, the priors decide to exile the leaders of the Black and White Guelf factions, which includes one of Dante’s friends, Guido Cavalcanti, who died later in August of the same year. After Dante’s summer tenure expired, the White faction leaders were recalled from exile. However, Pope Boniface VIII was against the moderate White party and so he called the French King Charles of Valois to militarily intervene. Dante was sent on an embassy to Pope Boniface VIII to try to persuade him against the invasion of Tuscany. It was during this time that Pope Boniface VIII allowed the loyal Black Guelfs to exile the White leaders, including Dante and many of his friends. The punishment for returning from exile without permission was death. His wife, Gemma Donati, had strong family ties to Florence and was not particularly important to his social activities or even his literary work work, nor was she invested in his public affairs. Because of this, when he was exiled his family was not.

The length of his exile was partly due to a highly critical letter he wrote to the Pope Boniface during his exile which detailed his support of the Roman emperor, which was the power opposing the papal control. His exile was never lifted; the nineteen years he spent in exile, were the worst of his life. He loved Florence and would never return. During his exile he was lonely and distraught as he constantly traveling from city to city which makes pinpointing his activities difficult. In 1308 he began writing his most famous work, the Divine Comedy. However, it is known that he conspired in a military seizure of Florence. It is also known that he spent time in Forli, Verona, Arezzo, where he was said to have met Ser Pertaccco, Treviso, Pauda, where he met Giotto who was working on the Scrovengni Chapel, Venice, Lunigiana, and Lucca.

He eventually settled in Verona in 1312 and resettled again in Ravenna with his host Guido Novella of Polenta in 1319. These years of exile are reflected greatly in his works with grim clarity. He eventually accepted he would never return to Florence again. It is not known why Dante agreed to leave Verona for Ravenna, however, it was a beautiful, contemplative place reminiscent of Byzantine times and Emperor Justinian which helped evoke the final images of Purgatoria and Paradiso. This is the city where he finished the last cantons of Paradiso. Dante died on September 13, 1321. He was buried in a tomb adjoining a Franciscan monastery and although his remains were moved over time they have never left the city. Although Florence has since tried to retrieve Dante’s bones, they did not honor him publically for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1830 when the first proper Florentine monument was built for him.

Dante’s writings and poetry have marked him as one of the greatest Italian authors in history although his political contributions were also significant in his time. His work in life reflect the importance of religion in Papal States. Catholicism guided daily interactions as well as inspiring timeless works of art through music, painting and literature. His most famous work, the Divine Comedy, is an ode to the religious moral imperatives prominent of his time. Through this work he intended to entertain while instructing his readers on how to live a righteous life. This work, was written, in part, to atone for his earlier poetry which he believes may have encouraged others to sin. His struggle with unholy or lustful love in relation to his muse Beatrice was difficult, but he managed to overcome his flesh and abide by his wife and children fulfilling his role as an Italian catholic patriarch.

Works Cited

“Dante Biography: Philosopher, Scholar, Poet.” A&E Networks Television, 2014. Web. 27 April 2014. <;.

Forman, Robert J. “Dante.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2013): Research Starter. Web. 30 April 2014.

Jacoff, Rachel. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

O’Connor, Anne. “Dante Alighieri- From Absence to Stony Presence: Building Memories in Nineteenth-Century Florence.” Italian Studies (2012): 307-335. Humanities International Complete. Web. 30 April 2014.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. “Dante Alighieri.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 29 Jan. 2001. Web. 25 April 2014. <;.







By Leslie Morales

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece of medieval Italy, not only due to its extensive influence, but also due to its broad symbolism and literary genius. When one studies the Divine Comedy, it is important to discuss Dante’s political affiliation, the influence of his beloved Beatrice, and the poet’s attention to the individual passage that men must take to join the inherent order of the Universe. These concepts are crucial in understanding the Divine Comedy since they represent a larger view of the medieval world that many, including Dante, shared. This view encompassed the corruption of the church and the common hope for justice preached to take place in the after-life.


In a letter addressed to Can Grande della Scala, which can be found in Mark Musa’s “Introduction to Dante and His Works,” Dante sets forth his purpose and method in writing the Divine Comedy. In it, Dante speaks of the different meanings contained in the work, he writes,

“For the clarity of what will be said, it is to be understood that this work is not simple, but rather it is polysemous, that is, endowed with many meanings… The first is called “literal” and the second “allegorical”… inasmuch as they are different from the literal or historical.”[1]

This letter tells the reader of the work’s mixture of history, mythology, and theology to form a whole work that conveys a story through the dictation of many others. Furthermore, the letter also connects the reader to Dante’s reason for labeling his masterpiece as a comedy.

According to Mark Musa, Dante stated that the word “comedy” derives from comus and oda that together mean a “rustic song.”[2] Musa continues to explain that unlike a tragedy, which begins in tranquility but comes to a sad end, Dante saw his work as a comedy. Dante argued that a comedy may begin under adverse circumstances, but can always have a happy ending so his work should be labeled as such. Furthermore, the author’s choice of the Tuscan dialect instead of Latin as the language of his poem is a sign of the humility that Dante wrote his poem with. According to Musa, “the language of comedy is humble, whereas that of tragedy is lofty.”[3] In other words, because the Divine Comedy begins in Hell, but has a happy ending in Paradise and was written in a vernacular language known to common men, Dante titled his work the Commedia.[4]


Although not much is known about Dante Alighieri, what is known is that he was born in Florence sometime in late May or early June in 1265. As Robert Hollander, a Princeton University Professor, states Dante was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione d’Alighiero and Donna Bella.[5] Dante’s family was considered noble by reason of titles and dignities but they held modest economic and social circumstances. Hollander continues to explain that like most of Florence’s lesser nobility Dante’s family was affiliated with the Guelf Party, which supported the pope, but later held allegiance for the imperial party when faced with the church’s corruption.[6]


It is important to note Dante’s political life when one explores the Divine Comedy because it shows the change in the poet’s political focus shift from the Empire towards the Church. In his earlier book, De monarchia, Dante writes of the intellectual benefits that a global community under one ruler could bring to humanity.[7] This idea was revolutionary because in Dante’s day, the only existing universal community was the Church. However, the Church condemned his idealistic work since it implied that happiness could be achieved without the Church, a statement that an individual considered a heretic would make in Dante’s time. [8] Hence, he was forced to realize that neither the monarch nor the empire but rather the pope and the Church would dominate Italian politics. Dante’s dissatisfaction is noticeable throughout various passages of the Divine Comedy. For example, in Purgatory canto XVI, Dante the Pilgrim encounters Marco Lombardo who explains that the current leadership of the church has been the reason why the world has gone corrupt:

On Rome, that brought the world to know the good,

Once shone two suns that lighted up two ways:

The road of the world and the road of God.

The one sun has put out the other’s light,

The sword is now one with the crook – and fused

Together thus, must bring about misrule,

Since joined, now neither fears the other one. [9]

This conversation shows the lament that Dante carried towards the corruption and control that the Pope and the church held in Italy and most of Western Europe.


Apart from Dante’s political stance, it is equally important to discuss his beloved Beatrice’s influence on his work. In the Divine Comedy, Beatrice encompasses Dante’s earthly love for her and the divinity that she adopts in his literary after-life. Beatrice as a guide to the Pilgrim is often identified as “divine revelation” and “wisdom”.[10] She, along with Virgil, personifies the light that guides the Pilgrim through his journey, for this reason many see her as Dante’s representation of all that is good, as well as the theological personification of grace. [11] Beatrice’s long lasting influence on the poet can be seen in Mark Musa’s statement that, “Dante’s emotional attachment to Beatrice brought him to idealize her more and more as the guide of his thoughts and feelings.”[12] As a result it came as no surprise that Beatrice played a major role in his poem as the pilgrim’s guide; serving as a reflection of Dante’s real life infatuation with her.

Although no one knows when Dante began composing the Divine Comedy, some argue as early as 1307[13], what is known is that Inferno was completed by 1314.[14] And as Boccaccio states, the final touches to Paradise were made in 1321, the year of Dante’s death.[15] The Divine Comedy consists of 100 cantos, divided into three major canticles: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each section contains thirty-three cantos, with Inferno being the exception. Inferno has 34 cantos because it includes the opening canto that serves as an introduction to the poem as a whole. As the reader can see, the appearance of the number three is eminent throughout the whole poem- three canticles with thirty-three cantos each. Dante’s obsession with the number three in the Divine Comedy can be accounted to the number’s importance in Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity and can be further observed in the rhyme structure that Dante developed for the poem.

For the Divine Comedy, Dante invented a rhyme scheme known as terza rime, tertiary rhyme.[16] As Musa explains, Dante divided each canto into three line stanzas in which the first and third line rhyme with each other while the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next terzina and so on. Dante’s devotion to the number three can be interpreted as the poet’s wish to make a connection to the Christian Holy Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit in his work. As one explores Dante’s poem, one can’t help but notice the increasing importance that the individual and human spirituality take as the Pilgrim’s journey unfolds.

Dante centers the Divine Comedy on the individual journey that men must take in order to become one with the Universe. Although the drama of the poem centers on the Pilgrim’s journey to God, its main idea is the movement of the soul towards its final goal: to become one with the Universe. This idea of becoming one with the Universe can be seen in the last lines of Paradise,

But as a wheel in perfect balance turns,

I felt my will and my desire impelled

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.[17]

This line is important because it shows Dante’s affinity and belief in a higher order of the universe. Furthermore, the overall intricate execution of the poem can be seen in Dante’s technique to end each canticle of his masterpiece with the word “stars.” This method not only emphasizes the author’s kinship with celestial entities but also marks the genius of Dante’s work. In the article, “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality” by Robert Royal, the author points out that the key point for a reader to keep while reading the Divine Comedy is that Dante meant what he said – that the Divine Comedy is about the divine, that it tells the tale of the soul’s journey to God. He writes, “If we fail to see the Divine Comedy as spirituality, we’ll never grasp it as poetry.”[18] This statement is evident in the tone of the poem and the lightness and divinity that Dante writes Paradise with. I agree with Royal’s attention to the spiritual aspect of Dante’s masterpiece and I trust that in my paper I was able to transmit to the reader a clear introduction of the vital topics that are essential in understanding and appreciating the Divine Comedy.

Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy is an outstanding example of literary genius due its intricate allegories and symbolism. Moreover, when one studies Dante’s epic poem it is important to consider Dante’s political affiliation, the influence of Beatrice as a character and person, and the author’s affinity with the order of the Universe. All three topics are crucial in the understanding of the Divine Comedy and the underlying meanings the poem offers. The Divine Comedy serves as a reflection of the views shared by many in medieval Europe; Dante along with others, exposed in their works the corruption and beliefs that they witnessed, offering present day readers a door into their world.



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984.


Boccaccio, Giovanni. Life of Dante. Translated by Philip H. Wicksteed. Richmond: OneWorld Classics, 2009.


Hollander, Robert. “Biography of Dante Alighieri.” Princeton Dante Project. Accessed May 3, 2014.


Lafferty, David. “A Beginner’s Guide to Dante – An Introduction to The Divine Comedy.” David Lafferty Website, June 18, 2008. Accessed May 3, 2014.


Musa, Mark. Introduction to The Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984.


Royal, Robert. “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality.” In The Wilson Quarterly, 122. Washington, D.C.: Wilson Quarterly, 1999.








[1] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 42.

[2] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 42.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43. Musa explains that the word Divina was not part of Dante’s original title.

[5] Robert Hollander, “Biography of Dante Alighieri,” Princeton Dante Project, accessed May 3, 2014,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 41.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Volume 2: Purgatory, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), XVI. 106- 112.

[10] David Lafferty, “A Beginner’s Guide to Dante – An Introduction to The Divine Comedy,” David Lafferty Website, June 18, 2008, accessed May 3, 2014,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 19.

[13] Robert Hollander, “Biography of Dante Alighieri,” Princeton Dante Project, accessed May 3, 2014,

[14] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43.

[15] Giovanni Boccaccio, Life of Dante, trans. Philip H. Wicksteed, (Richmond: OneWorld Classics, 2009), 62.

[16] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43.

[17] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Volume 3: Paradise, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), XXXIII. 143-145.

[18] Robert Royal, “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality,” in The Wilson Quarterly, (Washington, D.C.: Wilson Quarterly, 1999), 122.



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