Among other things, it called my attention to the perfect word Dante used to describe Cleopatra--lussuriosa--the sound of it and the lingering quality are so much better than the usual English translation--wanton.
The "company" is that of the Biachi, or White Guelphs, who were exiled with Dante. Dante did not participate in the last attempt in 1304, and about this time he broke from the party.
He has this unbelievable ability to write like he is painting. I think knowing the story of Dante and Beatrice added a lot to this book for me.
My suggestion, if you are willing to invest the time, is to read the Mandelbaum and Binyon translations together. In my opinion, its worth the investment of time.
This book made me take a thorough look at my own personal axiological assumptions and changed my mind in a couple of instances.
Laurence Binyon's masterful terza rima translation is the essential Divina Comedia for English readers.
I'm also glad I can say that I have, indeed, Read Dante. St Sam replied, laconic as ever, "aw, I just want to sit on my arse and fart and think of Dante." Yes! Anyhoo, back to Dante: there's obviously quite a bit that gets lost in translation- only a fluent speaker of Italian would be able to recieve the full effect. And that's not Dante's fault, naturally, but still...you want to let Robert Frost get away with his whole "poetry is what's lost in translation" bit? Honest, I'm totally cool about that kind of thing, especially when it comes to the epic poems and the school of the ages and all that business. It's also that there isn't much in the way of 'poetry' - I know that sounds a bit boorish, but go with me here.... Hell yeah, bring that shit on, I said- that's just the kind of thing I'd like to read... But I looked for it and I found it in the text it just wasn't there, for reasons that aren't really Dante's fault, of course, but still- you can translate a different kind of writer with more of the effects coming through intact. I think Dante doesn't seem to care all that much about making his world feel 'real' or, better to say, visceral and atmospherically rich; in a word, vivid. I don't think I'm the best reader for somebody who writes like that, to be honest. I know very little about the Russian critic Shklovsky, but I read that he said that the purpose of art was "to make the stone stony", which is just about the best definition of this fictional thing of ours I've heard. The thing I kept bumping up against with Dante (and I read it in good faith) was that he would have a tendency to just say 'stone' and leave it at that. I know what a lion looks like, thanks, but what does Dante want me to see in this lion? Lion signifying pride is pretty easily to get your head around, but I'd like some color and some description. I'm seeing, in a word, what I'm NOT reading in Dante's text. What?) he just pretty much tells me he's come across this fellow incased in ice up to his neck and leaves it at that. He gets a little badass on him, too, he's pulling the guy's frozen hair back, he's shouting in his face, he lies to him and tells the reader it's a pleasure to fuck with somebody that much of a loser. Well, sure, I mean there's no law that says he has to air grievances because of some kind of equal-time clause of literature (perish the thought!) but I'm getting Dante's thumb blurring the lens over and over again and it's a sectarian, dogmatic, severely pious, totalizing consciousness that obscures what the 'story' could be on its own merits. I understand totally that the story IS this kind of instruction, at least I think that's what Dante would solemnly intone to me if I ever asked him, but still... Dante seems to think that his symbolic use of various maladies and karmic comeuppance is as awe-inspiring (and I mean that deliberately) on its own merits that it should carry the day. Word on the street is: Inferno is the fun, horror movie, surreal stuff, Purgatorio is the best poetry, in terms of lyricism, and Paradisio was Aquinas-mad Dante's personal favorite (groan). Honestly, though, I think when Milton paints a picture you can fucking feel it in your bones more than you can in Dante.
The Guelfs and the Ghibellines were the two major factions, and in fact that division was important in all of Italy and other countries as well. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were political rivals for much of this time period, and in general the Guelfs were in favor of the Pope, while the Ghibellines supported Imperial power. The Whites were more opposed to Papal power than the Blacks, and tended to favor the emperor, so in fact the preoccupations of the White Guelfs were much like those of the defeated Ghibellines. Between 1302 and 1304 some attempts were made by the exiled Whites to retrieve their position in Florence, but none of these succeeded and Dante contented himself with hoping for the appearance of a new powerful Holy Roman Emperor who would unite the country and banish strife.