FLORENCE : Dante's legacy : The way through the wood. Seven hundred years after Dante's death, the ''Divine Comedy'' remains a salutary guide to hope amid adversity.

For non-Italian, too, Dante belongs in a pantheon of the West's Paramount literary geniuses, alongside Homer, Cervantes and Shakespeare.

In the English speaking world, his influence can be discerned in the work of Chaucer, Milton, Shelley and T.S.Elliot, among many others. The terza rima, the interlocking rhyme scheme that Dante first set down in writing, and which propels readers through the ''Divine Comedy'', has been used by poets ever since.

And yet Jacopo da Empoli's altarpiece was painted in a city that exiled Dante, confiscated his possessions  and sentenced him to death on trumped-up charges.

For Lino Pertile of Harvard University, that points to a paradox :

''We celebrate Dante. But we don't listen to him. Why has Florence never revoked the capital punishment it decreed in 1315?  Because what Dante was preaching and what the Florentines were doing were utterly at odds.''

It is often argued that the sommo poeta was ahead of his time. Dante unquestionably gave Italian the basis for a common language more than 500 years before they were united politically [though it is doubtful that he would have approved of unification : he lived before the age of nation-states and aspired to a universal monarchy].

Dante also prefigured ideas characteristic of the Renaissance and the Reformation. He imagined a pagan author, Virgil, as his guide to hell, which he peopled with monsters from classical mythology. And he consigned to the underworld ''clergymen, and popes and cardinals within whom avarice works its excess''.

But in so sense was Dante, who was born in or around 1265, a liberal - even by the standards of his time. He was appalled by the property boom that had transformed Florence in the 13th century and the rampant materialism it unleashed.

One of the city's proudest achievements was, and still is, to have made its gold coin, the fiorino, widely accepted in Europe seven centuries before the euro.

In a play on words, Dante damned it as il maladetto fiore [ the accursed flower]. The little that is known of his personality suggests that, at least while he remained in Florence, was a rather grouchy moralist.

What Dante offers in the '' Divine Comedy '' is a journey beyond politics, ''from the life of the senses to a life of the spirit'', as Mr. Pertile puts it.

That may renew his appeal in a bruised world that in short order has endured a financial crisis, a recession and a pandemic, and now faces the cataclysm of global warming.

Joseph Luzzi of Bard College calls Dante a '' poet of crisis, '' whose life split in two when he was expelled from Florence. Mr. Luzzi himself endured a similar fate, in even more dramatic fashion.

At 9.15 am on November 29th 2007 Mr. Luzzi's wife, Katherine Mester, a eight and a half months pregnant with their first child, pulled out of a petrol station in upstate New York and into the path of an oncoming van. Forty-five minutes after doctors performed an emergency cesarean section to deliver Isabel, her daughter, Mester died. By noon Mr. Luzzi was a father - and a widower.

Beyond mortal flesh

A book he published in 2015, ''In a Dark Wood'', recounts how he began to see his own distraught bereavement reflected in the writings of his favorite poet.

''I heard Dante's own voice as never before,'' he says. The poet ''lost everything. And the sense he conveys of losing a life that you once had was visceral in me.'' Mr. Luzzi too felt he was wandering through hell, and only after years of desperation and confusion reached a kind of a purgatory.

Most readers never proceed beyond the macabre thrills of Dante's '' Inferno '', with its grotesquely inventive torments. The gluttons get off comparatively lightly : they merely lie forever under icy rain while the three-headed monster Cerberus claws at their flesh and they ''howl like dogs.

Warmongers flounder in boiling blood while flatterers wallow in excrement. The archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri degli Ubandini, is encased with the enemy he has starved to death. Count Ugolino, who gnaws at his neck for eternity.

Those who ascend from the '' Inferno '' find some of Dante's most lyrical verse in his '' Purgatorio. ''  One of the most quoted passages is the greetings he receives from his friend, Casella, in the second section, or canto : 

'' As once I loved you in my mortal flesh, without it now I love you still.''

But it is the least -read of the three books, '' Paradiso '', that makes sense of the other two. It shows, says Mr. Luzzi , that its author was not just a poet of crisis, but also a poet of hope : '' The Divine Comedy '' is that rarest thing, an epic poem with a hopeful ending. It is about getting a second chance - and ultimately finding joy.


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