Dante Alighieri

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Writers and critics

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, painted by Giotto in the chapel of the Bargello palace in Florence. This oldest portrait of Dante was painted during his lifetime before his exile from his native city.
Born 14 May 1265(1265-05-14)
Died 13 September 1321 (aged 56)
Ravenna, Italy
Occupation Statesman, Poet, language theorist
Nationality Italian
Dante Alighieri, detail from a Luca Signorelli's affresco della cappella di San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto.
Dante Alighieri, detail from a Luca Signorelli's affresco della cappella di San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto.
A portrait of Dante, from a fresco in Palazzo dei Giudici, Florence.
A portrait of Dante, from a fresco in Palazzo dei Giudici, Florence.

Dante Alighieri, or simply Dante (between May 14 and June 13 1265 – September 13/14, 1321), was an Italian poet from Florence. His central work, the Divina Commedia (originally called "Commedia" and later called "Divina" (divine) by Boccaccio hence " Divina Commedia"), is considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature. In Italian he is known as "the Supreme Poet" (il Sommo Poeta). Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are also known as "the three fountains" or "the three crowns". Dante is also called the "Father of the Italian language". The first biography written on him was by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), who wrote the Trattatello in laude di Dante.


The exact date of Dante's birth is unknown, although it is generally believed to be around 1265. This can be deduced from self biographic allusions in La Vita Nuova, "the Inferno" (Halfway through the journey we are living, implying that Dante was around 35 years old, as the average lifespan according to the Bible (Psalms, 89, 10) is 70 years, and as the imaginary travel took place in the 1300 Dante must have been born around 1265). Some verses of " the Paradise" also provide information about the day he was born, stating that he was born under the Gemini sign, ie. the period between the 21st of May and the 21st of June ("As I revolved with the eternal twins, I saw revealed from hills to river outlets, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious", Paradise XXII 151-154)

Mural of Dante in the Uffizi Gallery, by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1450.
Mural of Dante in the Uffizi Gallery, by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1450.

Dante pretended that his family descended from the ancient Romans (Inferno, XV, 76), but the earliest relative he could mention by name was Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about 1100. Dante's father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a White Guelph (see politics section) who suffered no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the Battle of Montaperti in the mid 13th century. This suggests that Alighiero or his family enjoyed some protective prestige and status.

Dante's family was prominent in Florence, with loyalties to the Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the Papacy and which was involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor. The poet's mother was Bella degli Abati. She died when Dante was not yet ten years old, and Alighiero soon married again, to 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 di Manetto Donati, daughter of Messer Manetto Donati. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common and involved a formal ceremony, including contracts signed before a notary. Dante had already fallen in love with another girl, Beatrice Portinari (known also as Bice). Years after his marriage to Gemma he met Beatrice again. He had become interested in writing verse, and although he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems.

Dante fought in the front rank of the Guelph cavalry at the battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289). This victory brought forth a reformation of the Florentine constitution. To take any part in public life, one had to be enrolled in one of “the arts”. So Dante entered the guild of physicians and apothecaries. In following years, his name is frequently found recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic.

Dante had several children with Gemma. As often happens with significant figures, many people subsequently claimed to be Dante's offspring; however, it is likely that Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, Gabrielle Alighieri, and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice.

Education and poetry

Not much is known about Dante's education, and it is presumed he studied at home. It is known that 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 the Occitan poetry of the troubadours and the Latin poetry of classical antiquity (with a particular devotion to Virgil).

During the "Secoli Bui" (Dark Ages), Italy had become a mosaic of small states, Sicily being the largest one, at the time under the Angevine dominations, and as far (culturally and politically) from Tuscany as Occitania was: the regions did not share a language, culture, or easy communications. Nevertheless, we can assume that Dante was a keen up-to-date intellectual with international interests.

Statue of Dante at the Uffizi, Florence.
Statue of Dante at the Uffizi, Florence.

When he was nine years old he met Beatrice Portinari, 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; he effectively set the example for the so-called " courtly love". It is hard now to understand what this love actually comprised, but something extremely important for Italian culture was happening. It was in the name 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 Petrarch would show for his Laura) would apparently be the reason for poetry and for living, together with political passions. In many of his poems, she is depicted as semi-divine, watching over him constantly. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante tried to find a refuge in Latin literature. The Convivio reveals 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 mendicant orders ( Franciscan and Dominican) publicly or indirectly held in Florence, the former explaining the doctrine of the mystics and of Saint Bonaventure, the latter presenting Saint Thomas Aquinas' theories. This "excessive" passion for philosophy would later be criticized by the character Beatrice, in Purgatorio, the second book of the Comedy.

At 18, Dante met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia, and soon after Brunetto Latini; together they became the leaders of Dolce Stil Novo ("The Sweet New Style"). Brunetto later received a special mention in the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XV, 28), for what he had taught Dante. Nor speaking less on that account, I go With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are His most known and most eminent companions. Some fifty poetical components by Dante are known (the so-called Rime, rhymes), others being included in the later Vita Nuova and Convivio. Other studies are reported, or deduced from Vita Nuova or the Comedy, regarding painting and music.

Florence and politics

Dante, like most Florentines of his day, was embroiled in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict. He fought in the battle of Campaldino ( June 11, 1289), with the Florentine Guelphs against Arezzo Ghibellines, then in 1294 he was among the escorts of Charles Martel d'Anjou (son of Charles of Anjou) while he was in Florence.

To further his political career, he became a pharmacist. He did not intend to actually practice as one, but a law issued in 1295 required that nobles who wanted public office had to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni delle Arti e dei Mestieri, so Dante obtained admission to the apothecaries' guild. This profession was not entirely inapt, since at that time books were sold from apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little, but he held various offices over a number of years in a city undergoing political unrest.

After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into two factions: the White Guelphs (Guelfi Bianchi) — Dante's party, led by Vieri dei Cerchi — and the Black Guelphs (Guelfi Neri), led by Corso Donati. Although initially the split was along family lines, ideological differences rose based on opposing views of the papal role in Florentine affairs, with the Blacks supporting the Pope and the Whites wanting more freedom from Rome. Initially the Whites were in power and expelled the Blacks.

In response, Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of Florence. In 1301, Charles de Valois, brother of Philip the Fair king of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the city's government had treated the Pope's ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from papal influence. It was believed that Charles de Valois would eventually have received other unofficial instructions. So the council sent a delegation to Rome to ascertain the Pope's intentions. Dante was one of the delegates.

Exile and death

A recreated death mask of Dante Alighieri (in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).
A recreated death mask of Dante Alighieri (in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).

Boniface quickly dismissed the other delegates and asked Dante alone to remain in Rome. At the same time ( November 01, 1301), Charles de Valois entered Florence with Black Guelphs, who in the next six days destroyed much of the city and killed many of their enemies. A new Black Guelph government was installed and Messer Cante dei Gabrielli di Gubbio was appointed Podestà of Florence. Dante was condemned to exile for two years, and ordered to pay a large fine. The poet was still in Rome, where the Pope had "suggested" he stay, and was therefore considered an absconder. He did not pay the fine, in part because he believed he was not guilty, and in part because all his assets in Florence had been seized by the Black Guelphs. He was condemned to perpetual exile, and if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could be burned at the stake. (The city council of Florence finally passed a motion rescinding Dante's sentence in June 2008.)

The poet took part in several attempts by the White Guelphs to regain power, but these failed due to treachery. Dante, bitter at the treatment he received from his enemies, also grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his erstwhile allies, and vowed to become a party of one. At this point, he began sketching the foundation for the Divine Comedy, a work in 100 cantos, divided into three books of thirty-three cantos each, with a single introductory canto.

Statue of Dante in the Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence.
Statue of Dante in the Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence.

He went to Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo I della Scala, then moved to Sarzana in Liguria. Later, he is supposed to have lived in Lucca with Madame Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio, XXIV, 37). Some speculative sources say that he was also in Paris between 1308 and 1310. Other sources, even less trustworthy, take him to Oxford.

In 1310, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg, marched 5,000 troops into Italy. Dante saw in him a new Charlemagne who would restore the office of the Holy Roman Emperor to its former glory and also re-take Florence from the Black Guelphs. He wrote to Henry and several Italian princes, demanding that they destroy the Black Guelphs. Mixing religion and private concerns, he invoked the worst anger of God against his city, suggesting several particular targets that coincided with his personal enemies. It was during this time that he wrote the first two books of the Divine Comedy.

In Florence, Baldo d'Aguglione pardoned most of the White Guelphs in exile and allowed them to return; however, Dante had gone too far in his violent letters to Arrigo (Henry VII), and he was not recalled.

The memorial tomb for Dante Alighieri at Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence.
The memorial tomb for Dante Alighieri at Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence.

In 1312, Henry assaulted Florence and defeated the Black Guelphs, 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 he had become unpopular with the White Guelphs too and that any trace of his passage had carefully been removed. In 1313, Henry VII died, and with him any hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande I 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).

Dante's tomb in Ravenna, built in 1780.
Dante's tomb in Ravenna, built in 1780.

In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile, including Dante. But Florence required that as well as paying a sum of money, these exiles would do public penance. Dante refused, preferring to remain in exile. When Uguccione defeated Florence, Dante's death sentence was commuted to house arrest, on condition that he go to Florence to swear that he would never enter the town again. Dante refused to go. His death sentence was confirmed and extended to his sons. Dante still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honourable terms. For Dante, exile was nearly a form of death, stripping him of much of his identity. He addresses the pain of exile in Paradiso, XVII (55-60), where Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather, warns him what to expect:

. . . Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta ". . . You shall leave everything you love most:
più caramente; e questo è quello strale this is the arrow that the bow of exile
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta. shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale of others' bread, how salty it is, and know
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle how hard a path it is for one who goes
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale . . . ascending and descending others' stairs . . ."

As for the hope of returning to Florence, he describes it wistfully, as if he had already accepted its impossibility, (Paradiso, XXV, 1–9):

Se mai continga che 'l poema sacro If it ever come to pass that the sacred poem
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra, to which both heaven and earth have set their hand
sì che m'ha fatto per molti anni macro, so as to have made me lean for many years
vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra should overcome the cruelty that bars me
del bello ovile ov'io dormi' agnello, from the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra; an enemy to the wolves that make war on it,
con altra voce omai, con altro vello with another voice now and other fleece
ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte I shall return a poet and at the font
del mio battesmo prenderò 'l cappello . . . of my baptism take the laurel crown...

Of course it never happened. Prince Guido Novello da Polenta invited him to Ravenna in 1318, and he accepted. He finished the Paradiso, and died in 1321 (at the age of 56) while returning to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission to Venice, perhaps of malaria contracted there. Dante was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called San Francesco). Bernardo Bembo, praetor of Venice in 1483, took care of his remains by building a better tomb.

Cenotaph in Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence.
Cenotaph in Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence.

On the grave, some verses of Bernardo Canaccio, a friend of Dante, dedicated to Florence:

parvi Florentia mater amoris
"Florence, mother of little love"

Eventually, Florence came to regret Dante's exile, and made repeated requests for the return of his remains. The custodians of the body at Ravenna refused to comply, at one point going so far as to conceal the bones in a false wall of the monastery. Nevertheless, in 1829, a tomb was built for him in Florence in the basilica of Santa Croce. That tomb has been empty ever since, with Dante's body remaining in Ravenna, far from the land he loved so dearly. The front of his tomb in Florence reads Onorate l'altissimo poeta - which roughly translates as "Honour the most exalted poet". The phrase is a quote from the fourth canto of the Inferno, depicting Virgil's welcome as he returns among the great ancient poets spending eternity in Limbo. The continuation of the line, L'ombra sua torna, ch'era dipartita ("his spirit, which had left us, returns"), is poignantly absent from the empty tomb.

Recently, a recreation of Dante's face was made, showing that his features were much more ordinary than once thought.


Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the famous incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence 1465.
Dante, poised between the mountain of purgatory and the city of Florence, displays the famous incipit Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita in a detail of Domenico di Michelino's painting, Florence 1465.

The Divine Comedy describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the subject of his love and of another of his works, La Vita Nuova. 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 knowledge to appreciate. Purgatorio, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey (e.g., when Dante looks into the face of God: "all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa" - "at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe," Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).

Dante wrote the Comedy in a new language he called "Italian", based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, with some elements of Latin and of the other regional dialects. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first (among others such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to break from standards of publishing in only Latin (the languages of liturgy, history, and scholarship in general). This break allowed more literature to be published for a wider audience - setting the stage for greater levels of literacy in the future.

Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510).
Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510).

Readers often cannot understand how such a serious work may be called a "comedy". In Dante's time, all serious scholarly works were written in Latin (a tradition that would persist for several hundred years more, until the waning years of the Enlightenment) and works written in any other language were assumed to be more trivial in nature. Furthermore, the word " comedy," in the classical sense, refers to works which reflect belief in an ordered universe, in which events not only tended towards a happy or "amusing" ending, but an ending influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. By this meaning of the word, the progression of Dante's pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the paradigmatic expression of comedy, since the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.

Dante's other works include the Convivio ("The Banquet") a collection of his longest poems with an (unfinished) allegorical commentary; Monarchia, , which was condemned and burned after Dante's death by the Papal Legate Bertrando del Poggetto and which serves as a monumental political philosophy treatise describing a monarchial global political organization and its relationship to the Roman Catholic Church; De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), on vernacular literature, partly inspired by the Razos de trobar of Raimon Vidal de Bezaudun; and, 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 Vita Nuova contains many of Dante's love poems in Tuscan, which was not unprecedented; the vernacular had been regularly used for lyric works before, during all the thirteenth century. However, Dante's commentary on his own work is also in the vernacular - both in the Vita Nuova and in the Convivio - instead of the Latin that was almost universally used.

Note: References to Divina Commedia are in the format (book, canto, verse), e.g., (Inferno, XV, 76).

Dante by Erminio Blotta, at Blvd. Oroño Rosario, Argentina
Dante by Erminio Blotta, at Blvd. Oroño Rosario, Argentina

In popular culture

Dante and the Divine Comedy have been a source of inspiration for countless artists for almost seven centuries. As one of the best-known and greatest artistic works in the Western tradition, its influence on culture is difficult to overestimate.

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