Dante Alighieri (circa May 29, 1265 – September 13/14, 1321) was a Florentine poet. His greatest work, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), is considered the greatest literary statement produced in Europe in the medieval period, and the basis of the modern Italian language.
Early life and family
Dante was born in 1265 and he tells us he was born under the sign of Gemini, placing his birthday in May or June. He was born into the prominent Alighieri family of Florence, with loyalties to the Guelfs, a political alliance involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines; Guelfs themselves were divided into White Guelfs (pro-imperial) and Black Guelfs. Dante (a White Guelf) pretended that his family descended from the ancient Romans (Inferno, XV, 76), but the earliest relative he can mention by name is Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about 1100.
His father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a White Guelf, but suffered no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the battle of Montaperti, and this safety reveals a certain personal or family prestige.
Dante’s mother was Donna Bella degli Abati; “Bella” stands for Gabriella, but also means “beautiful”, while Abati (the name of a powerful family) means friars; a really curious name. She died when Dante was 5 or 6 years old, and Alighiero soon married Miss Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. (It is uncertain whether he really married her, as widowers had social limitations in these matters.) This woman definitely bore two children, Dante’s brother Francesco and sister Tana (Gaetana).
When Dante was 12, in 1277, he was promised in marriage to Gemma, daughter of Messer Manetto Donati. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common, and was an important ceremony, requiring formal deeds signed before a notary. Dante had several sons with Gemma. As often happens with famous people, many children pretended to be Dante’s offspring; however, it is likely that Jacopo, Pietro, and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice. Another man, Giovanni, claimed to be his son and was in exile with Dante, but some doubts were advanced about his claim.
Education and poetry
Not much is known about Dante’s education, and it is presumed he studied at home. We know he studied Tuscan poetry, at a time when the Sicilian School (Scuola poetica siciliana), a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests brought him to discover Provencal minstrels and poets, and Latin culture (with an obvious particular devotion to Virgil).
It should be underlined that during the “Secoli Bui” (Dark Ages), Italy had become a mosaic of small states, so Sicily was as far (culturally and politically) from Tuscany as Provence was: the regions did not sharea language, culture, or easy communications. Nevertheless, we can assume that Dante was a keen up-to-date intellectual with international interests.
When 18, he met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia, and soon after Brunetto Latini; together they became the leaders of Dolce Stil Nuovo (The Sweet New Style). Brunetto later received a special mention in the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XV, 82), for what he had taught Dante. Other studies are reported, or deduced from Vita Nuova or the Divine Comedy, regarding painting and music.
When he was nine years old he met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of Folco Portinari, with whom he fell in love “at first sight”, and apparently without even having spoken to her. He saw her frequently after age 18, often exchanging greetings in the street, but he never knew her well.
It is hard to decipher of what this love consisted, but something extremely important for Italian culture was happening: as it is in the sign of this love that Dante gave his imprint to the Stil Novo and would lead poets and writers to discover the themes of Love (Amore), which had never been so emphasized before. Love for Beatrice (as in a different manner Petrarca would show for his Laura) would apparently be the reason for poetry and for living, together with political passions.
When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante tried to find a refuge in Latin literature. From the Convivio we know that he had read Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae and Cicero’s De amicitia. He then dedicated himself to philosophical studies at religious schools like the Dominican one in Santa Maria Novella. He took part in the disputes that the two principal monastic orders (Franciscan and Dominican) publicly or indirectly held in Florence, the former explaining the doctrine of the mystics and of San Bonaventura, the latter presenting Saint Thomas Aquinas’ theories. His “excessive” passion for philosophy would later be criticized by Beatrice, in Purgatory.
Florence and politics
Dante also found time to be a soldier, and in 1289 fought in the battle of Campaldino (June 11), with Florentine knights against Arezzo, then in 1294 he was among those knights who escorted Carlo Martello d’Anjou (son of Charles of Anjou) while he was in Florence.
He also became a doctor and a pharmacist; he did not intend to take up those professions, but a law issued in 1295 required that nobles who wanted to assume public office had to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni di Arti e Mestieri, so Dante obtained quick admission to the apothecaries’ guild and could consequently begin his political career. The profession he chose was not entirely inapt, since at the time books were sold from apothecaries’ shops. As a politician, he accomplished little of relevance, but he held various offices over a number of years in a city undergoing some political agitation.
The Guelfs were divided into two factions: the White Guelfs (Guelfi Bianchi) (led by Vieri dei Cerchi), and the Black Guelfs (Guelfi Neri) (led by Corso Donati). “Colours” were chosen when Vieri dei Cerchi gave his protection to the Grandi’s family in Pistoia, which was locally called La parte bianca (the white party); Corso Donati had consequently protected the rival (parte nera), and these colours became the distinctive colours of the parties in Florence.
Being engaged in politics was not easy when Pope Boniface VIII was planning a military occupation of Florence, because this involved issues which transcended the city, and were beyond the scope of a local official. In 1301, Charles de Valois, brother of Philippe le Bel king of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the city’s government had already treated the Pope’s ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from Papal influences. It was thought wise to consider the hypothesis that Charles de Valois could eventually have received other unofficial orders. So the council sent a delegation to Rome, in order to ascertain the Pope’s intentions. Dante was the chief of this delegation.
Exile and death
Boniface quickly sent away the other representatives and asked Dante alone to remain in Rome. At the same time (November 1, 1301) Charles de Valois was entering Florence with Black Guelfs, who in the next six days destroyed everything and killed most of their enemies. A new government was installed of Black Guelfs, and Cante dei Gabbrielli di Gubbio was named Podesta (mayor). Dante was condemned to exile for two years, and to pay a huge amount of money. The poet was still in Rome, where the Pope had “suggested” he stay, and was therefore considered an absconder. He could not pay his fine and was finally condemned to perpetual exile. If he were ever caught by Florentine soldiers, he would have been summarily executed.
The poet took part in several attempts by the White Guelfs to regain the power they had lost, but these failed due to treachery. Dante, bitter at the treatment he had received at the hands of his enemies, also grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his erstwhile allies and vowed, in his own words, to become a party of one. At this point he began sketching the foundations for the Comedy, a work in 100 cantos, divided into three books of thirty-three cantos each, with a single introductory canto.
He went to Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo Della Scala, then moved to Sarzana (Liguria), and after this he is supposed to have lived for some time in Lucca with Madame Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio XXIV,37). Some sources say that he was in Paris, too, between 1308 and 1310. Other sources, even less trustworthy, take him to Oxford.
In 1310 Henry VII of Luxembourg, King of the Romans (Germany), was invading Italy; Dante saw in him the chance of revenge, so he wrote to him (and to other Italian princes) several public letters violently inciting them to destroy the Black Guelfs. Mixing religion and private concerns, he invoked the worst anger of God against his town, suggesting several particular targets that coincided with his personal enemies.
In Florence Baldo d’Aguglione pardoned most of the White Guelfs in exile and allowed them to come back; however, Dante had gone beyond the pale in his violent letters to Arrigo (Henry VII), and he was not recalled.
In 1312, Arrigo assaulted Florence and defeated the Black Guelfs, but there is no evidence that Dante was involved. Some say he refused to participate in the assault on his city by a foreigner; others suggest that his name had become unpleasant for White Guelfs too and that any trace of his passage had carefully been removed. In 1313 Arrigo died, and with him any residual hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande Della Scala allowed him to live in a certain security and, presumably, in a fair amount of prosperity. Cangrande was admitted to Dante’s Paradise (Paradiso XVII, 76).
In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile. Dante too was in the list of citizens to be pardoned. But Florence required that, apart from paying a sum of money, these citizens agreed be treated as public offenders in a religious ceremony. Dante refused this outrageous formula, and preferred to remain in exile.
When Uguccione finally defeated Florence, Dante’s death sentence was converted into confinement, at the sole condition that he go to Florence to swear that he would never enter the town again. Dante didn’t go. His condemnation to death was confirmed and extended to his sons.
Dante still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honorable terms. For Dante, exile was nearly a form of death, stripping him of much of his identity. Dante addresses the pain of exile in Canto XVII of Paradiso, where Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather, warns him what to expect: … Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
piu caramente; e questo e quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai si come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come e duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale… “…You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs . . .”
Paradiso, XVII, 55-60. As for the hope of returning to Florence, he describes it wistfully, as if he had already accepted its impossibility, in Canto XXV of Paradiso:
Se mai continga che ‘l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
si che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,
vinca la crudelta che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;
con altra voce omai, con altro vello
ritornero poeta, e in sul fonte
del mio battesmo prendero ‘l cappello . . .
If it should happen… if this sacred poem
this work so shared by heaven and earth
that it has made me lean these long years
can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it,
by then with other voice, with other fleece,
I shall return as poet and put on
at my baptismal font, the laurel crown . . .
Paradiso, XXV, 1-9. Of course it never happened; his bones are still found in Ravenna, not Florence.
Guido Novello da Polenta, prince of Ravenna, invited him there in 1318, and he accepted the offer. Here he finished Paradise and, soon after, he died, perhaps of malaria. This was in 1321 (at the age of 56) and was buried in the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called San Francesco). Bernardo Bembo, praetor of Venice, in 1483 took care of his remains by organising a better tomb.
On the grave, some verses of Bernardo Canaccio, a friend of Dante, dedicated to Florence:
parvi Florentia mater amoris
“Florence, mother of little love”
The Divine Comedy describes Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman epic poet Virgil and then by his beloved Beatrice. While the vision of Hell, the Inferno, is vivid for modern readers, the theological niceties presented in the other books require a certain amount of patience and scholarship to understand. Purgatory, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most ecstatic mystic passages, in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey.
Dante wrote the Comedy in his regional dialect. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression, and simultaneously established the Tuscan dialect as the standard for Italian.
Other works include De vulgari eloquentia (“On the Eloquence of Vernacular”), on vernacular literature, and the La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), the story of his love for Beatrice Portinari, who also served as the ultimate symbol of salvation in the Comedy. The book contains love poems in Tuscan, not a new thing; the vernacular had been used for lyric works before. But it also contains Dante’s learned comments on his own work and these too are in the vernacular, instead of the Latin that was almost universally used.
Note: References to La divina commedia are as follows: (Inferno, XV, 76) = (book, canto, verse)