Durante Alighieri (generally known as Dante) was born in late Spring1, 1265, in Florence, Italy. His parents were low-aristocrats who were comfortably off rather than particularly wealthy or poor. At the age of nine he met a girl named Bice di Folco Portinari2, who was the object of his desires until she died in 1290, although she was always out of his reach.
As a young man, Dante was part of the Stilnovo poetical movement. Founded by a poet from Bologna named Guido Guinizzelli, the movement was most popular in Florence. The Stilnovo 3 poets only wrote about love. They saw love as a perfect ideal, almost sacred. Women were seen as symbols of purity and virtue.
In about 1285, Dante married Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of a powerful Guelfo.
The Guelfi were a political party, supporters of papal power, and arch-enemies of the Ghibellini, who were loyal to the Emperor. Throughout the Middle Ages, Italy was divided politically, largely due to the struggle between church and temporal leaders. In 1295 Dante started a career in politics, joining the Guelfi. He rose to power quickly, and in five years he became a Priore (similar to a governor).
A faction of Guelfi defected to the side of the Emperor; they were known as the White Guelfi, and Dante eventually joined their ranks. Around 1300 the fighting between the White Guelfi and the Black Guelfi (those who remained loyal to the Pope) became much fiercer. Dante was forced to pick a side. He chose to support the Whites, and denounced temporal interference.
Unfortunately for him, the Black Guelfi won. The new regime in Florence accused him of fraud and ordered him to two years exile and a fine. Dante claimed he was innocent of the charges, and refused to pay the fine. As a result, he was sentenced to death. He fled Florence and stayed under the protection of Bartolomeo della Scala in Verona, unable to ever return to Florence. For the rest of his life he was constantly moving. He died in 1321 in Ravenna, and was buried in San Pier Maggiore's Church.
Dante Alighieri was a complex man with a complex life. Many consider him to be the greatest writer of the Middle Ages. Others think of him as a whining complainer with serious psychological issues. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between. The fact remains that this is a man who had a profound impact on a great many people, both during his life and after. The name Dante is known the world over, and his greatest work has been read by countless millions of people. In 1321 he entered into the realm that he wrote of and was lost to us forever, but Dante Alighieri has achieved immortality through a tale that will never be forgotten.
The Works of Dante
Dante is most famous for his masterpiece La Divina Commedia, which is widely considered to be the defining literary work of the Middle Ages. Apart from those listed below, several other writings are attributed to Dante; but other than a series of letters collectively known as the Epistles, most of these works are apocryphal and may have been written by someone else.
La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy)
La Divina Commedia was originally titled simply Commedia. Dante's friend and colleague, Giovanni Boccaccio, came up with the idea for the adjective. In Dante's time, the term 'comedy' did not mean what it does today; a comedy was a story with a happy ending, and did not imply humorous content. La Divina Commedia is a fictional story about Dante's guided tour of the spiritual realm.
It is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). In this journey, Virgil, a poet from ancient Rome, guides Dante through Hell and Purgatory. However, because poor Virgil had the misfortune of dying before Christ unlocked the gates of Heaven through His crucifixion, he was forbidden to enter Heaven. In his stead, the job was filled by Beatrice, the woman Dante always loved, but was never loved by, in his real life. Beatrice guided him through Heaven.
La Divina Commedia contains much that is symbolic. The three main characters, Dante and his two guides, each symbolise something. Dante is the symbol of mankind, while Virgil symbolises human reason. Lastly, Beatrice is symbolic of God's love. The religious conversion of Dante in the story symbolises the conversion of all mankind. Even the date is symbolic. According to literary analysts, the first line of the poem, combined with lines 112-114 of Canto XXI of Inferno reveal that the journey begins on Good Friday, 1300. This is the day that Dante became Priore of Florence, the office which led to his exile. Oddly enough, it is also the most solemn holy day of the year of the first Jubilee. Although the former event is more significant in the life of Dante, the latter may be of more importance to the symbolic meaning of the story. The Jubilee, introduced by Pope Boniface VIII, was a universal call to moral conversion, the symbolic theme of the story. There is more numeric symbolism than just the encrypted date; the structure of the work is littered with patterns of three, symbolising the trinity of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This essay is titled simply Banquet because it is intended as a banquet of knowledge, with poetry as the courses, and prose as the bread. Consisting of four books, this essay is unusual because it uses the vernacular Italian language instead of the 'scholar's language', Latin.
De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the Usefulness of the Vernacular)
In this unfinished work, considered to be the first work of literary criticism, Dante explains his views on the problems of language. He thought that Italian dialects4 should be used in literature, not just speech. Latin should be reserved for essays and other technical works. Dante considers the vernacular to be more noble than Latin, because it is more natural and expressive. He goes on to present his theory for the essential characteristics of an ideal language. Such a language did not exist, so Dante proposes that one be created. Interestingly, he wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin.
This essay, in Latin, is Dante's argument on the issue of politics. He argues that the best form of government is a world empire, ruled by an absolute monarch5. Dante points out that war and conflict are caused by greed, and the Emperor owns every material good, and therefore has no capacity for greed. Dante goes on to explain his theory for the separation of the Church and the State. God gives temporal power to the Emperor, while spiritual power is reserved for the Pope. The two realms of power should not overlap. The duty of the Emperor is to ensure mankind's happiness in life, while the Pope must guide mankind to spiritual salvation, so they may enjoy eternal happiness in the afterlife.
This is a collection of Dante's lyrical poems and includes sonnets, canzones and ballads all in Italian. The themes and style are mostly consistent with the Stilnovo philosophy, but include other influences as well.
Vita Nuova (New Life)
This is a collection of Dante's early poems. It is divided into 42 chapters. They are written in the Stilnovo style, and are mostly concerned with Beatrice.
Quaestio de Aqua et de Terra (Inquiry of the Water Level)
This is the last published work that Dante ever wrote. It was written in 1320, the year before he died. It demonstrates that nowhere on Earth does the sea level exceed the land level, and is based on an speech he made in Verona. A mundane end to the life of one of the most influential writers in history.