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The women who appear in Dante’s "Divine Comedy" are finally getting their due, 700 years later

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25.09.2021

When Dante Alighieri died 700 years ago, on September 14, 1321, he had just put his final flourishes on the "Divine Comedy," a monumental poem that would inspire readers for centuries.

The "Divine Comedy" follows the journey of a pilgrim across the three realms of the Christian afterlife – hell, purgatory and paradise. There, he encounters a variety of characters, many of whom are based on real people Dante had met or heard of during his life.

One of them is a woman named Sapia Salvani. Sapia meets Dante and his first guide, Virgil, on the second terrace of purgatory. She tells the two how her fate in the afterlife was sealed – how she stood at the window of her family's castle and, with troops gathering in the distance, prayed for her own city, Siena, to fall. Despite their advantage, the Sienese were slaughtered – including Sapia's nephew, whose head was paraded around Siena on a pike.

Sapia, however, felt triumphant. According to Dante and medieval theologians, she had fallen prey to one of the seven capital vices, "invidia," or envy.

The portrayal of Sapia in the "Divine Comedy" is imbued with political implications, many of which boil down to the fact that Dante blamed the violence of his time on those who turned against their communities out of arrogance and greed.

But the real Sapia was even more interesting than Dante would have you believe. Documentary sources reveal that she was a committed philanthropist: With her husband, she founded a hospice for the poor on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome. Five years after witnessing the fall of Siena, she donated all her assets to this hospice.

Sapia is one among many characters from the "Divine Comedy" that deserve to be known beyond – and not just because of – what Dante decided to say about them in his poem. With my students at Wellesley College, I'm reviving the real stories behind the characters of Dante's masterpiece and making them available to everyone on Wikipedia. And it was especially important for us to start with his female characters.

Why........

© Salon


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