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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (under the sign of Gemini, 1265 - September 13/14, 1321) was a Florentine poet. His greatest work, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is a culminating statement of the medieval world view and the basis of the modern Italian language.


Dante's birthdate is unknown, though he tells us he was born under the sign of Gemini, placing it in May or June. He was born into a prominent Florentine family (whose real surname was Alaghieri), with loyalties to the Guelfs[?], a political alliance involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines[?]; Guelfs themselves were divided into White Guelfs and Black Guelfs. Dante 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, whom he later married. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common, and was an important ceremony, requiring formal acts subscribed in front of 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.

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 Scuola poetica siciliana, a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests brought him to discover Provenšal[?] minstrels and poets, and Latin culture (with an obvious particular devotion to Virgil).

It should be underlined that during the "Secoli Bui" (Dark Ages), the ruins of the Roman empire had definitely decayed, leaving dozens of little states, so Sicily was as far (culturally and politically) from Tuscany as Provence was: the regions did not share a language, culture, or easy connections. We can then assume that Dante was for his times 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 Novo[?]. 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.

While still 18 he also met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of Folco Portinari. It has been said that Dante had seen her only once and never spoke to her (but other versions may be equally valid). It is hard to decipher what this love consisted of, 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 will lead poets and writers to discover the themes of Love (Amore), never so emphasized before. Love for Beatrice (as in a different manner Petrarca will show for his Laura) will 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 Convivio we know that he had read Boetius'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 first ones explaining the doctrine of the mystics and of San Bonaventura, the others presenting Saint Thomas's theories.
His "excessive" passion for philosophy would have been later... self-censored by Beatrice, in the fiction of Purgatory.
Dante also found the time to be a soldier, and in 1289 fought in the battle of Campaldino[?] (June 11th), with Florentine knights against Arezzo, then in 1294 he was among those knights who escorted Carlo Martello[?] (son of Charles II d'Anjou and the hero of Poitiers) while in Florence.

He became a doctor and a pharmacist as well. He did not intend to take up those professions, but a law issued in 1295 required that nobles who wanted to assume public charges had to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni di Arti e Mestieri[?], so Dante obtained quick admission to the medical corporation and could consequently begin his political career. Nothing of relevance, but he spent several years in a few charges, in a nervous town.

The Guelfs were divided into the two factions of White Guelfs (Guelfi Bianchi) (led by Vieri dei Cerchi) and Black Guelfs (Guelfi Neri) (led by Corso Donati[?]). "Colors" 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 colors became Florentine distinctive colours.

Being engaged in politics was not easy when Pope Boniface VIII was planning a military occupation of Florence, because this involved higher interests above the town, and beyond the comprehension of a local administrator. In 1301 Charles de Valois, brother of Philippe le Bel king of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointeded him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the genuine local government had already treated the Pope's ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from Roman influences. It was wise to consider the hypothesis that Charles de Valois could have eventually received other unofficial orders. So the council sent a delegation to Rome, in order to understand the Pope's intentions. Dante was the chief of this delegation.

Boniface quickly sent away the other representatives and asked Dante only to remain in Rome. At the same time (Nov. 1st, 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 2 years, and to pay a huge amount of money. The poet was still in Rome, where the Pope had "suggested" he stay, therefore he was considered an absconder, he could not pay for his fine and was finally condemned to perpetual exile. If he was ever caught by Florentine soldiers, he would have been immediately executed by fire.

The poet took part in several attempts by the White Guelfs to regain the power they had lost, but these failed, also due to spies and traitors, and the Divine Comedy's Hell started becoming popular.

He went to Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo Della Scala, then moved to Sarzana[?] (Liguria), and after this he is supposed having lived 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.

In 1310 Arrigo VII of Luxembourg was invading Italy; Dante saw in his figure the chance of a revenge so he wrote him (and to other Italian princes) several public letters violently inciting them to destroy the Black Guelfs. Mixing religion and private facts, 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 forgave most of the White Guelfs in exile and let them come back; Dante had however passed any limit in his violent letters to Arrigo, 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 became unpleasant for White Guelfs too and that any trace of his passage had carefully been removed.

In 1313 Arrigo died, and with him died any residual hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande Della Scala[?] let him live in a certain safety 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 controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile. Dante too was in the list of forgivaable citizens. 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 grant that he would never had entered the town again. Dante didn't go. His condemnation to death was confirmed and extended to his sons.

Guido Novello da Polenta, prince of Ravenna, invited him in 1318, and he accepted. Here he finished his Paradise and, soon after, died. Dante died in 1321 (at 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, 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 (whom he never spoke to, and had seen only once). 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.

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 Vita Nuova ("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)

See also: Italian Writers

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