Last reviewed: June 2018
May or June, 1265
Florence (now in Italy)
September 14, 1321
Ravenna (now in Italy)
Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, was born into a Florentine family of noble lineage but modest circumstances. His father was Alighiero di Bellincione d’Alighiero, of a family that can be traced back to the second crusade. His mother, Bella, died when he was a child; she may have been the daughter of Durante di Scolaio degli Abati, a name that would account for the “Dante,” a contraction of “Durante.” Dante’s family was connected with the Guelphs, the papal party antagonistic to the imperial Ghibellines. He was baptized in the San Giovanni Baptistery. Dante
Despite the family’s financial status, Dante was able to be educated as a gentleman, and he probably studied rhetoric in Bologna. He formed a close friendship with the poet Guido Cavalcanti and other poets who as a group were called the stilnovisti (practitioners of the “sweet new style”). These poets sought to create a poetry that was syntactically and rhetorically simpler than earlier Italian poetry but which drew its imagery from learned traditions like science and philosophy. Part of Dante’s youth was spent in military service; he was a mounted soldier fighting with the Florentine Guelphs when they defeated the Aretines at Campaldino in 1289.
Not much else of Dante’s early life is known; perhaps the most significant events from the perspective of literary history were those involving a Florentine girl, Beatrice, or Bice, Portinari, later the wife of Simone de’ Bardi. Dante presents what is probably a somewhat fictionalized account of his affair with Beatrice in The New Life. According to Dante, he first met her when he was nine and she was eight, and from the first moment he was fascinated by her. Although he saw her several times during the next nine years, she never spoke to him until one May morning in 1285. The depth of his emotional response and the increasing role she played in his life as an image of everything good and divine is described in The New Life, composed over a period of years and finally gathered together about the year 1292. This same Beatrice came to play a significant role as his sponsor in his trip through Paradise, as told in The Divine Comedy. Dante says he composed his first sonnet upon returning to his chambers, after having been greeted by Beatrice. When he sent the poem to several famous poets, a reply from Guido Cavalcanti began his strongest friendship.
Dante was familiar with the conventions of “courtly love” as presented in the lyrics of the Provençal troubadours, and he describes in The New Life how he thought it proper to be seen with other young ladies so as to hide his love of Beatrice. Consequently, when he saw her again she failed to greet him, and the effect of this rebuff was devastating, as described in the poems of The New Life.
Beatrice married Simone de’ Bardi sometime around 1285. About this time or shortly thereafter, Dante married Gemma Donati, in accordance with an arrangement made by his father in 1277. Little is known of this marriage, and Dante never mentions it. Dante and Gemma had at least three children: Jacopo, Pietro, Antonia (who may have been the “Beatrice” who became a nun at Ravenna), and perhaps a fourth, Giovanni. When Beatrice’s father died, probably sometime in the later part of 1289, Dante began to reflect on death and to fear that it might come to Beatrice. In fact, Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, about six months after her father.
Dante’s sorrow was followed by reflection, his reflection by imagination; soon he was poetically imagining Beatrice as one of the glories of Paradise. He decided to put the experience together in a way that reflected the growth of his own love from self-centered indulgence to a more objective appreciation of Beatrice’s excellence as she inspired him to spiritual growth. Gathering his scattered poems together, reworking and ordering them, he formed them into a complete volume, The New Life, a work celebrating the new life that his love of Beatrice made possible.
In addition to his own love of Beatrice and the tradition of the Provençal lyric, Dante was also influenced by classical poetry, especially Vergil, and by his interest in philosophy, particularly Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. About 1290, when Dante was twenty-five, he began an intensive two-or three-year study of philosophy, some of it, in all probability, with the Franciscans of Santa Croce.
After his studies Dante became active in the political life of Florence. In order to be eligible for election to the councils, in 1295 he joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries, which would have accepted writers because books were sold at apothecaries’ shops. He was consequently elected and summoned to several councils and then, as a result of his service as an ambassador to San Gimignano, was elected in 1300 as one of the six priors of Florence—the highest office in the city. He served for the usual term of two months, from June 15 to August 15, leaving office just in time to escape being excommunicated by Pope Boniface VIII. By that time the Guelphs had split into two factions. The Blacks, led by Corso Donati, were sympathetic to the pope; the Whites, headed by Vieri de’ Cerchi, refused an invitation from the pope to make peace with the Blacks and restore unity to the Guelphs. Consequently, Dante and other municipal leaders recommended the banishment from Florence of the leaders of both factions—including his best friend, Guido Cavalcanti of the Whites, who died in exile. Then, in the effort to forestall the plans of Pope Boniface to use Charles of Valois, the French prince, for the recovery of Sicily and the conquest of the Tuscany rebels, Dante—who was by that time a White—was sent with two others in October, 1301, as envoys to the pope. While Dante was in Rome, Charles entered Florence and took control of the city in support of the Blacks. On January 27, 1302, Dante and four other Whites were charged with barratry and as punishment were fined and exiled. On March 10, because Dante failed to appear, it was declared that he would be burned alive if he reentered Florence. Later the same sentence was passed on his sons, to take effect when they reached the age of fourteen.
For the next twenty years, until his death, Dante lived in exile, staying in various cities: San Godenzo, Forli, Verona, and Ravenna. He made several attempts to be readmitted to Florence, including the writing of The Divine Comedy, and would perhaps have succeeded had he been willing to do public penance and had he not written an angry letter to the Florentines accusing them of crimes against honest men. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII descended into Italy to restore peace, Dante hoped that the emperor’s victory would pave the way for his readmission to Florence. He wished the emperor success and paid him homage, but he would not join him in the fight against Florence. Dante’s hopes were ended, however, when the death of Henry in 1313 put an end to the Italian campaign.
Dante’s positive efforts to express his ideas of right action and civic duty and to say something about the kind of language appropriate to poetry resulted in two treatises, De vulgari eloquentia (sometimes rendered in English as “on the illustrious vernacular”) and The Banquet, composed in the period from 1304 through 1307. These works were never completed, however, because he interrupted them to begin a master poem, one in which Beatrice would function as the spirit of everything good and divine, the spirit of love, guiding Dante through Paradise: the Commedia (known to later generations, who added a word, as The Divine Comedy).
In a letter written to his patron, the Veronese nobleman Can Grande della Scala, Dante describes his poem as having four levels of meaning, like scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the analogical—that is, it tells of Dante’s trip through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; it shows how the soul progresses; it suggests the right way of life; and it relates man’s state to the divine.
Shortly after completing his greatest poem, the outstanding work of the medieval period, Dante died on September 13 or 14 in 1321 in Ravenna, after having contracted some disease, perhaps malaria, on his return from a diplomatic mission to Venice.