AKA Durante Alighieri
Birthplace: Florence, Italy
Location of death: Ravenna, Italy
Cause of death: Fever
Remains: Buried, Ravenna, Italy
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Poet, Philosopher
Executive summary: La Divina Commedia
The greatest of Italian poets, born at Florence about the middle of May 1265. He was descended from an ancient family, but from one which at any rate for several generations had belonged to the burgher and not to the knightly class. His biographers have attempted on very slight grounds to deduce his origin from the Frangipani, one of the oldest senatorial families of Rome. We can affirm with greater certainty that he was connected with the Elisei who took part in the building of Florence under Charles the Great. Dante himself does not, with the exception of a few obscure and scattered allusions, carry his ancestry beyond the warrior Cacciaguida, whom he met in the sphere of Mars (Paradiso, XV). Of Cacciaguida's family nothing is known. The name, as he told Dante (ibid.), was given him at his baptism; it has a Teutonic ring. The family may well have sprung from one of the barons who, as Villani tells us, remained behind Otto I. It has been noted that the phrase "Tonde venner quivi" (ibidi, XVI) seems to imply that they were not Florentines. He further tells his descendant that he was born in the year 1106 (or, if another reading of XVI be adopted, in 1091), and that he married an Aldighieri from the valley of the Po. Here the German strain appears unmistakably; the name Aldighiero (Aldiger) being purely Teutonic. He also mentions two brothers, Moronte and Eliseo, and that he accompanied the emperor Conrad III upon his crusade into the Holy Land, where he died (1147) among the infidels. From Eliseo was probably descended the branch of the Elisei; from Aldighiero, son of Cacciaguida, the branch of the Alighieri. Bellincione, son of Aldighiero, was the grandfather of Dante. His father was a second Aldighiero, a lawyer of some reputation. By his first wife, Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffli, this Aldighiero had a son Francesco; by his second, Donna Bella, whose family name is not known, Dante and a daughter. Thus the family of Dante held a most respectable position among the citizens of his beloved city; but had it been reckoned in the very first rank they could not have remained in Florence after the defeat of the Guelphs at Montaperti in 1260. It is clear, however, that Dante's mother at least did so remain, for Dante was born in Florence in 1265. The heads of the Guelph party did not return until 1267.
Dante was born under the sign of the twins. Astrologers considered this constellation as favorable to literature and science, and Brunetto Latini, the philosopher and diplomat, his instructor, tells him in the Inferno (XV) that, if he follows its guidance, he cannot fail to reach the harbor of fame. We know little of Dante's boyhood except that he was a hard student and was profoundly influenced by Brunetto Latini. Boccaccio tells us that he became very familiar with Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Statius, and all other famous poets. From the age of eighteen he, like most cultivated young men of that age, wrote poetry assiduously, in the philosophical amatory style of which his friend, older by many years than himself, Guido Cavalcanti, was a great exponent, and of which Dante regarded Guido Guinicelli of Bologna as the master (Purgatorio, XXVI). Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo, writing a hundred years or more after his death, says that "by study of philosophy, of theology, astrology, arithmetic and geometry, by reading of history, by the turning over many curious books, watching and sweating in his studies, he acquired the science which he was to adorn and explain in his verses." Of Brunetto Latini Dante himself speaks with the most loving gratitude and affection, though he does not hesitate to brand his vices with infamy. Under such guidance Dante became master of all the science of his age at a time when it was not impossible to know all that could be known.
Dante had some knowledge of drawing; at any rate he tells us that on the anniversary of the death of Beatrice he drew an angel on a tablet. He was an intimate friend of Giotto, who has immortalized his youthful lineaments in the chapel of the Bargello, and who is recorded to have drawn from his friends inspiration the allegories of Virtue and Vice which fringe the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua. Nor was he less sensible to the delights of music. Milton had not a keener ear for the loud uplifted angel trumpets and the immortal harps of golden wires of the cherubim and seraphim; and the English poet was proud to compare his own friendship with Henry Lawes with that between Dante and Casella, "met in the milder shades of purgatory." Of his companions the most intimate and sympathetic were the lawyer-poet Cino of Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, Guido Cavalcanti and others, similarly gifted and with like tastes, who moved in the lively and acute society of Florence, and felt with him the first warm flush of the new spirit which was soon to pass over Europe. It is a wonderful thing (says Leonardo Bruni) that, though he studied without intermission, it would not have appeared to anyone that he studied, from his joyous mien and youthful conversation. Like Milton he was trained in the strictest academical education which the age afforded; but Dante lived under a warmer sun and brighter skies, and found in the rich variety of his early life a defense against the withering misfortunes of his later years. Milton felt too early the chill breath of Puritanism, and the serious musing on the experience of life, which saddened the verse of both poets, deepened in his case rather into grave and desponding melancholy, than into the fierce scorn and invective which disillusion wrung from Dante.
We must now consider the political circumstances in which lay the activity of Dante's manhood. From 1115, the year of the death of Matilda countess of Tuscany, to 1215, Florence enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted peace. Attached to the Guelph party, it remained undivided against itself. But in 1215 a private feud between the families of Buondelmonte and Uberti introduced into the city the horrors of civil war. Villani relates how Buondelmonte de Buondelmonti, a noble youth of Florence, being engaged to marry a lady of the house of Amidei, allied himself instead to a Donati, and how Buondelmonte was attacked and killed by the Amidei and Uberti at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, close by the pilaster which bears the image of Mars. "The death of Messer Buondelmonte was the occasion and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence." Of the 72 families then in Florence 39 became Guelph under the leadership of the Buondelmonte and the rest Ghibelline under the Uberti. The strife of parties was for a while allayed by the war against Pisa in 1222, and the constant struggles against Siena; but in 1248 Frederick II sent into the city his natural son Frederick "of Antioch", with 1600 German knights. The Guelphs were driven away from the town, and took refuge, part in Montevarchi, part in Capraia. The Ghibellines, masters of Florence, behaved with great severity, and destroyed the towers and palaces of the Guelph nobles. At last the people became impatient. They rose in rebellion, reduced the powers of the podestÓ, elected a captain of the people to manage the internal affairs of the city, with a council of twelve, established a more democratic constitution, and, encouraged by the death of Frederick II in December 1250, recalled the exiled Guelphs.
Manfred, the bastard son of Frederick, pursued the policy of his father. He stimulated the Ghibelline Uberti to rebel against their position of subjection. A rising of the vanquished party was put down by the people, in July 1258 the Ghibellines were expelled from the town, and the towers of the Uberti razed to the ground. The exiles betook themselves to the friendly city of Siena. Manfred sent them a reinforcement of German horse, under his kinsman Count Giordano Lancia. The Florentines, after vainly demanding their surrender, despatched an army against them. On the 4th of September 1260 was fought the great battle of Montaperti, which dyed the Arbia red, and in which the Guelphs were entirely defeated. The hand which held the banner of the republic was sundered by the sword of a traitor (Inferno, XXXII). For the first time in the history of Florence the Carroccio was taken. Florence lay at the mercy of her enemies. A parliament was held at Empoli, in which the deputies of Siena, Pisa, Arezzo and other Tuscan towns consulted on the best means of securing their new war power. They voted that the accursed Guelph city should be blotted out. But Farinata degli Uberti stood up in their midst, bold and defiant as when he stood erect among the sepulchres of hell, and said that if, from the whole number of the Florentines, he alone should remain, he would not suffer, while he could wield a sword, that his country thould be destroyed, and that, if it were necessary to die a thousand times for her, a thousand times would he be ready to encounter death.
Help came to the Guelphs from an unexpected quarter. Pope Clement IV, elected pope in 1265, offered the crown of Apulia and Sicily to Charles of Anjou. The French prince, passing rapidly through Lombardy, Romagna and the Marches, reached Rome by way of Spoleto, was crowned on the 6th of January 1266, and on the 23rd of February defeated and killed Manfred at Benevento. In such a storm of conflict did Dante first see the light. In 1267 the Guelphs were recalled, but instead of settling down in peace with their opponents they summoned Charles of Anjou to vengeance, and the Ghibellines were driven out. The meteor passage of Conradin gave hope to the imperial party, which was quenched when the head of the fair-haired boy fell on the scaffold at Naples. Pope after pope tried in vain to make peace. Pope Gregory X placed the rebellious city under an interdict; in 1278 Cardinal Latini by order of Nicholas III effected a truce, which lasted for four years. The city was to be governed by a committee of fourteen buonomini, on which the Guelphs were to have a small majority. In 1282 the constitution of Florence received the final form which it retained until the collapse of freedom. From the three arti maggiori were chosen six priors, in whose hands was placed the government of the republic. Before the end of the century, seven greater arts were recognized, including the speziali -- druggists and dealers in all manner of oriental goods, and in books -- among whom Dante afterwards enrolled himself. They remained in office for two months, and during that time lived and shared a common table in the public palace. We shall see what influence this office had upon the fate of Dante. The success of the "Sicilian Vespers" (March 1282), the death of Charles of Anjou (January 1285), and of Martin IV in the following March, roused again the courage of the Ghibellines. They entered Arezzo, where the Ghibellines at present had the upper hand, and threatened to drive out the Guelphs from Tuscany. Skirmishes and raids, of which Villani and Bruni have left accounts, went on through the winter of 1288-89, forming a prelude to the great battle of Campaldino in the following summer. Then it was that Dante saw "horsemen moving camp and commencing the assault, and holding muster, and the march of foragers, the shock of tournaments, and race of jousts, now with trumpets and now with bells, with drums and castle signals, with native things and foreign" (Inferno, XXII). On the 11th of June 1289, at Campaldino near Poppi, in the Casentino, the Ghibellines were utterly defeated. They never again recovered their hold on Florence, but the violence of faction survived under other names. In a letter quoted, though not at first hand, by Leonardo Bruni, which is not now extant, Dante is said to mention that he himself fought with distinction at Campaldino. He was present shortly afterwards at the battle of Caprona, and returned in September 1289 to his studies and his love. His peace was of short duration. On the 9th of June 1290 died Beatrice, whose mortal love had guided him for thirteen years, and whose immortal spirit purified his later life, and revealed to him the mysteries of Paradise.
Dante had first met Beatrice Portinari at the house of her father Folco on Mayday 1274. In his own words, "already nine times after my birth the heaven of light had returned as it were to the same point, when there appeared to my eyes the glorious lady of my mind, who was by many called Beatrice who knew not what to call her. She had already been so long in this life that already in its time the starry heaven had moved towards the east the twelfth part of a degree, so that she appeared to me about the beginning of her ninth year, and I saw her about the end of my ninth year. Her dress on that day was of a most noble color, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her tender age. At that moment I saw most truly that the spirit of life which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembing it said these words, 'Ecce deus fortior me qui veniens dominabitur mihi.'" In the Vita Nuova is written the story of his passion from its commencement to within a year after the lady's death (June 9th, 1290). He saw Beatrice only once or twice, and she probably knew little of him. She married Simone de' Bardi. But the worship of her lover was stronger for the remoteness of its subject. The last chapter of the Vita Nuova relates how, after the lapse of a year, "it was given me to behold a wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me to say nothing further of this blessed one until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labor all I can, as she in truth knoweth. Therefore if it be His pleasure through whom is the life of all things that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman. After the which may it seem good unto Him who is the master of grace that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory of its lady, to wit, of that blessed Beatrice who now gloriously gazes on the countenance of Him qui est per omnia saecula benedictus." In the Convito he resumes the story of his life. "When I had lost the first delight of my soul (that is, Beatrice) I remained so pierced with sadness that no comforts availed me anything, yet after some time my mind, desirous of health, sought to return to the method by which other disconsolate ones had found consolation, and I set myself to read that little-known book of Boetius in which he consoled himself when a prisoner and an exile. And hearing that Tully had written another work, in which, treating of friendship, he had given words of consolation to Laelius, I set myself to read that also." He so far recovered from the shock of his loss that in 1292 he married Gemma, daughter of Manetto Donati, a connection of the celebrated Corso Donati, afterwards Dante's bitter foe. It is possible that she is the lady mentioned in the Vita Nuova as sitting full of pity at her window and comforting Dante for his sorrow. By this wife he had two sons and two daughters, and although he never mentions her in the Divina Commedia, and although she did not accompany him into exile, there is no reason to suppose that she was other than a good wife, or that the union was otherwise than happy. Certain it is that he spares the memory of Corso in his great poem, and speaks kindly of his kinsmen Piccarda and Forese.
In 1293 Giano della Bella, a man of old family who had thrown in his lot with the people, induced the commonwealth to adopt the so-called "Ordinances of Justice", a severely democratic constitution, by which among other things it was enacted that no man of noble family, even though engaged in trade, could hold office as prior. Two years later Giano was banished, but the ordinances remained in force, though the grandi recovered much of their power.
Dante now began to take an active part in politics. He was inscribed in the arte of the Medici and Speziali, which made him eligible as one of the six priori to whom the government of the city was entrusted in 1282. Documents still existing in the archives of Florence show that he took part in the deliberations of the several councils of the city in 1295, 1296, 1300 and 1301. The notice in the last year is of some importance. The pope had demanded a contingent of 100 Florentine knights to serve against his enemies, the Colonna family. On the 19th of June we read in the contemporary report of the debate on this question in the Council of a Hundred: "Dantes Alagherius consuluit quod de servitio faciendo Domino Papae nihil fieret." Other instances of his invariable opposition to Boniface occur. Francesco Filelfo says that he served on fourteen embassies, a statement not only unsupported by evidence, but impossible in itself. Filelfo does not mention the only embassy in which we know for certain that Dante was engaged, that to the town of San Gemignano in May 1300. From the 15th of June to the 15th of August 1300 he held the office of prior, which was the source of all the miseries of his life. The spirit of faction had again broken out in Florence. The two rival families were the Cerchi and the Donati -- the first of great wealth but recent origin, the last of ancient ancestry but poor. A quarrel had arisen in Pistoia between the two branches of the Cancellieri -- the Bianchi and Neri, the Whites and the Blacks. The quarrel spread to Florence, the Donati took the side of the Blacks, the Cerchi of the Whites. Pope Boniface was asked to mediate, and sent Cardinal Matteo d'Acquasparta to maintain peace. He arrived just as Dante entered upon his office as prior. The cardinal effected nothing, but Dante and his colleagues banished the heads of the rival parties in different directions to a distance from the capital. The Blacks were sent to CittÓ della Pieve in the Tuscan mountains; the Whites, among whom was Dante's dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to Serrezzano in the unhealthy Maremma. After the expiration of Dante's office both parties returned, Guido Cavalcanti so ill with fever that he shortly afterwards died. At a meeting held in the church of the Holy Trinity the Whites were denounced as Ghibellines, enemies of the pope. The Blacks sought for vengeance. Their leader, Corso Donati, hastened to Rome, and persuaded Boniface VIII to send for Charles of Valois, brother of the French king, Philip the Fair, to act as "peacemaker." The priors sent at the end of September four ambassadors to the pope, one of whom, according to the chronicler Dino, was Dante. There are, however, improbabilities in the story, and the passage quoted in support of it bears marks of later interpolation. He never again saw the towers of his native city. Charles of Valois, after visiting the pope at Anagni, retraced his steps to Florence, entering the city on All Saints' Day and taking up his abode in the Oltr' Arno. Corso Donati, who had been banished a second time, returned in force and summoned the Blacks to arms. The prisons were broken open, the podestÓ driven from the town, the Cerchi confined within their houses, a third of the city was destroyed with fire and sword. By the help of Charles the Blacks were victorious. They appointed Cante de' Gabrielli of Gubbio as podestÓ, a man devoted to their interests. More than 600 Whites were condemned to exile and cast as beggars upon the world. On the 27th of January 1302, Dante, with four others of the White party, was charged before the podestÓ, Cante de' Gabrielli, with baratteria, or corrupt jobbery and peculation when in office, and, not appearing, condemned to pay a fine of 5000 lire of small florins. If the money was not paid within three days their property was to be destroyed and laid waste; if they did pay the fine they were to be exiled for two years from Tuscany; in any case thy were never again to hold office in the republic. The charge in Dante's case was obviously preposterous, though ingeniously devised; for he was known to be at the time in somewhat straitened circumstances, and had recently been in control of certain public works. But of all sins, that of "barratry" was one of the most hateful to him. No doubt the papal finger may be traced in the affair. On the 10th of March Dante and fourteen others were condemned to be burned alive if they should come into the power of the republic. Similar sentences were passed in September 1311 and October 1315. The sentence was not formally reversed until 1494, under the government of the Medici.
Leonardo Bruni, who accepts the story of the embassy to Rome, states that Dante received the news of his banishment in that city, and at once joined the other exiles at Siena. How he escaped arrest in the papal states is not explained. The exiles met first at Gargonza, a castle between Siena and Arezzo, and then at Arezzo itself. They joined themselves to the Ghibellines, to which party the podestÓ Uguccione della Faggiuola belonged. The Ghibellines, however, were divided amongst themselves, and the more strict Ghibellines were not disposed to favor the cause of the White Guelphs. On the 8th of June 1302, however, a meeting was held at San Godenzo, a place in the Florentine territory, Dante's presence at which is proved by documentary evidence, and an alliance was there made with the powerful Ghibelline clan of the Ubaldini. The exiles remained at Arezzo until the summer of 1304. In September 1303 the fleur-de-lis had entered Anagni, and Christ had a second time been made prisoner in the person of his vicar. At the instigation of Philip the Fair, William of Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna had entered the papal palace at Anagni, and had insulted and, it is said, even beaten the aged pontiff under his own roof. Boniface did not survive the insult long, but died in the following month. He was succeeded by Pope Benedict XI, and in March the cardinal da Prato came to Florence, sent by the new pope to make peace. The people received him with enthusiasm; ambassadors came to him from the Whites; and he did his best to reconcile the two parties. But the Blacks resisted all his efforts. He shook the dust from off his feet, and departed, leaving the city under an interdict. Foiled by the calumnies and machinations of the one party, the cardinal gave his countenance to the other. It happened that Corso Donati and the heads of the Black party were absent at Pistoia. Da Prato advised the Whites to attack Florence, deprived of its heads and impaired by a recent fire. An army was collected of 16,000 foot and 9000 horse. Communications were opened with the Ghibellines of Bologna and Romagna, and a futile attempt was made to enter Florence from Lastra, the failure of which further disorganized the party. Dante had, however, already separated from the "ill-conditioned and foolish company" of common party-politicians, who rejected his counsels of wisdom, and had learned that he must henceforth form a party by himself. In 1303 he had left Arezzo and gone to Forli in Romagna, of which city Scarpetta degli Ordelaffi was lord. To him, according to Flavius Blondus the historian (who died before 1484), a native of the place, Dante acted for a time as secretary.
From Forli Dante probably went to Bartolommeo della Scala, lord of Verona, where the country of the great Lombard gave him his first refuge and his first hospitable reception. Can Grande, to whom he afterwards dedicated the Paradiso, was then a boy. Bartolommeo died in 1304, and it is possible that Dante may have remained in Verona until his death. We must consider, if we would understand the real nature of Dante's Ghibellinism, that he had been born and bred a Guelph; but he saw that the conditions of the time were altered, and that other dangers menaced the welfare of his country. There was no fear now that Florence, Siena, Pisa, Arezzo should be razed to the ground in order that the castle of the lord might overlook the humble cottages of his contented subjects; but there was danger lest Italy should be torn in sunder by its own jealousies and passions, and lest the fair domain bounded by the sea and the Alps should never properly assert the force of its individuality, and should present a contemptible contrast to a united France and a confederated Germany. United in spiritual harmony with the vicar of Christ, he should show for the first time to the world an example of a government where the strongest force and the highest wisdom were interpenetrated by all that God had given to the world of piety and justice. In this sense and in no other was Dante a Ghibelline. The vision was never realized. Not until 500 years later did Italy become united.
It is very difficult to determine with exactness the order and the place of Dante's wanderings. Many cities and castles in Italy have claimed the honor of giving him shelter, or of being for a time the home of his inspired muse. He certainly spent some time with Count Guido Salvatico in the Casentino near the sources of the Arno, probably in the castle of Porciano, and with Uguccione in the castle of Faggiuola in the mountains of Urbino. After this he is said to have visited the university of Bologna; and in August 1306 we find him at Padua. Cardinal Napoleon Orsini, the legate of the French Pope Clement V, had put Bologna under a ban, dissolved the university and driven the professors to the northern city. In May or June 1307 the same cardinal collected the Whites at Arezzo and tried to induce the Florentines to recall them. The name of Dante is found attached to a document signed by the Whites in the church of St. Gaudenzio in the Mugello. This enterprise came to nothing. Dante retired to the castle of Moroello Malespina in the Lunigiana, where the marble ridges of the mountains of Carrara descend in precipitous slopes to the Gulf of Spezzia. From this time until the arrival of the emperor Henry VII in Italy, October 1310, all is uncertain. His old enemy Corso Donati had at last allied himself with Uguccione della Faggiuola, the leader of the Ghibellines. Dante thought it possible that this might lead to his return. But in 1308 Corso was declared a traitor, attacked in his house, put to flight and killed. Dante lost his last hope. He left Tuscany, and went to Can Grande della Scala at Verona. From this place it is thought that he visited the university of Paris (1309), studied in the rue du Fouarre and went on into the Low Countries. Stories of him entering England are false. The only evidence for it is in the Commentary of John of Serravalle, bishop of Fermo, written for the benefit of two English bishops. The election in 1308 of Henry of Luxemburg as emperor stirred again his hopes of a deliverer. At the end of 1310, in a letter to the princes and people of Italy, he proclaimed the coming of the savior; at Milan he did personal homage to his sovereign. The Florentines made every preparation to resist the emperor. Dante wrote from the Casentino a letter dated the 31st of March 1311, in which he rebuked them for their stubbornness and obstinacy. Henry still lingered in Lombardy at the siege of Cremona, when Dante, on the 16th of April 1311, in a celebrated epistle, upbraided his delay, argued that the crown of Italy was to be won on the Arno rather than on the Po, and urged the tarrying emperor to hew the rebellious Florentines like Agag in pieces before the Lord. Henry was as deaf to this exhortation as the Florentines themselves. After reducing Lombardy he passed from Genoa to Pisa, and on the 29th of June 1312 was crowned by some cardinals in the church of St. John Lateran at Rome; the Vatican being in the hands of his adversary King Robert of Naples. Then at length he moved towards Tuscany by way of Umbria. Leaving Cortona and Arezzo, he reached Florence on the 19th of September. He did not dare to attack it, but returned in November to Pisa. In the summer of the following year he prepared to invade the kingdom of Naples; but in the neighborhood of Siena he caught a fever and died at the monastery of Buonconvento, on the 24th of August 1313. He lies in the Campo Santo of Pisa; and the hopes of Dante and his party were buried in his grave.
After the death of the emperor Henry (Bruni tells us) Dante passed the rest of his life as an exile, sojourning in various places throughout Lombardy, Tuscany and the Romagna, under the protection of various lords, until at length he retired to Ravenna, where he ended his life. Very little can be added to this meagre story. There is reason for supposing that he stayed at Gubbio with Bosone dei Rafaelli, and tradition assigns him a cell in the monastery of Sta. Croce di Fonte Avellana in the same district, situated on the slopes of Catria, one of the highest peaks of the Apennines in that region. After the death of the French pope, Clement V, he addressed a letter, dated the 14th of July 1314, to the cardinals in conclave, urging them to elect an Italian pope. About this time he came to Lucca, then lately conquered by his friend Uguccione. Here he completed the last cantos of the Purgatory, which he dedicated to Uguccione, and here he must have become acquainted with Gentucca, whose name had been whispered to him by her countryman on the slopes of the Mountain of Purification (Purgatorio, XXIV). That the intimacy between the "world-worn" poet and the young married lady (who is thought to be identifiable with Gentucca Morla, wife of one Cosciorino Fondora) was other than blameless, is quite incredible. In August 1315 was fought the battle of Monte Catini, a day of humiliation and mourning for the Guelphs. Uguccione made but little use of his victory; and the Florentines marked their vengeance on his adviser by condemning Dante yet once again to death if he ever should come into their power. In the beginning of the following year Uguccione lost both his cities of Pisa and Lucca. At this time Dante was offered an opportunity of returning to Florence. The conditions given to the exiles were that they should pay a fine and walk in the dress of humiliation to the church of St. John, and there do penance for their offenses. Dante refused to tolerate this shame; and the letter is still extant in which he declines to enter Florence except with honor, secure that the means of life will not fail him, and that in any corner of the world he will be able to gaze at the sun and the stars, and meditate on the sweetest truths of philosophy. He preferred to take refuge with his most illustrious protector Can Grande della Scala of Verona, then a young man of twenty-five, rich, liberal and the favored head of the Ghibelline party. His name has been immortalized by an eloquent panegyric in the seventeenth canto of the Paradiso. While on a visit at the court of Verona he maintained, on the 20th of January 1320, the philosophical thesis De aqua et terra, on the levels of land and water, which is included in his minor works. The last three years of his life were spent at Ravenna, under the protection of Guido da Polenta. In his service Dante undertook an embassy to the Venetians. He failed in the object of his mission, and, returning disheartened and broken in spirit through the unhealthy lagoons, caught a fever and died in Ravenna on the 14th of September 1321. His bones still repose there. His doom of exile has been reversed by the union of Italy. His son Piero, who wrote a commentary on the Divina Commedia, settled as a lawyer in Verona, and died in 1364. His daughter Beatrice lived as a nun in Ravenna, dying at some time between 350 (when Boccaccio brought her a present of ten gold crowns from a Florentine guild) and 1370. His direct line became extinct in 1509.
Of Dante's works, that by which he is known to all the educated world, and in virtue of which he holds his place as one of the half-dozen greatest writers of all time, is of course the Commedia. (The epithet divina, it may be noted, was not given to the poem by its author, nor does it appear on a title page until 1555, in the edition of Ludovico Dolce, printed by Giolito; though it is applied to the poet himself as early as 1512.) The poem is absolutely unique in literature; it may safely be said that at no other epoch of the world's history could such a work have been produced. Dante was steeped in all the learning, which in its way was considerable, of his time; he had read the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, the TrÚsor of his master Brunetto, and other encyclopaedic works available in that age; he was familiar with all that was then known of the Latin classical and post-classical authors. Further, he was a deep and original political thinker, who had himself borne a prominent part in practical politics. He was born into a generation in which almost every man of education habitually wrote verse, as indeed their predecessors had been doing for the last fifty years. Vernacular poetry had come late into Italy, and had, save for a few didactic or devotional treatises hitched into rough rhyme, been exclusively lyric in form. Amatory at first, later, chiefly in the hands of Guittone of Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti, taking an ethical and metaphysical tone, it had never fully shaken off the Provenšal influence under which it had started, and of which Dante himself shows considerable traces.
The age also was unique, though the two great events which made the 15th century a turning-point in the world's history -- the invention of printing and the discovery of the new world (to which might perhaps be added the intrusion of Islam into Europe) -- were still far in the future. But the age was essentially one of great men; of free thought and free speech; of brilliant and daring action, whether for good or evil. It is easy to understand how Dante's bitterest scorn is reserved for those "sorry souls who lived without infamy and without renown, displeasing to God and to His enemies."
The Commedia, though often classed for want of a better description among epic poems, is totally different in method and construction from all other poems of that kind. Its "hero" is the narrator himself; the incidents do not modify the course of the story; the place of episodes is taken by theological or metaphysical disquisitions; the world through which the poet takes his readers is peopled, not with characters of heroic story, but with men and women known personally or by repute to him and those for whom he wrote. Its aim is not to delight, but to reprove, to rebuke, to exhort; to form men's characters by teaching them what courses of life will meet with reward, what with penalty, hereafter; "to put into verse", as the poet says, "things difficult to think." For such new matter a new vehicle was needed. We have Bembo's authority for believing that the terza rima, surpassed, if at all, only by the ancient hexameter, as a measure equally adaptable to sustained narrative, to debate, to fierce invective, to clear-cut picture and to trenchant epigram, was first employed by Dante.
The action of the Commedia opens in the early morning of the Thursday before Easter, in the year 1300. The poet finds himself lost in a forest, escaping from which he has his way barred by a wolf, a lion and a leopard. All this, like the rest of the poem, is highly symbolical. This branch of the subject is too vast to be entered on at any length here; but so far as this passage is concerned it may be said that it seems to indicate that at this period of his life, about the age of 35, Dante went through some experience akin to what is now called "conversion." Having led up until then the ordinary life of a cultivated Florentine of good family; taking his part in public affairs, military and civil, as an hereditary member of the predominant Guelph party; dallying in prose which with all its beauty and passion is full of the conceits familiar to the 13th century, and in verse which save for the excellence of its execution differs in no way from that of his predecessors, with the memory of his lost love; studying more seriously, perhaps, than most of his associates; possibly travelling a little -- gradually or suddenly he became convinced that all was not well with him, and that not by leading, however blamelessly, the "active" life could he save his soul. The strong vein of mysticism, found in so many of the deepest thinkers of that age, and conspicuous in Dante's mind, no doubt played its part. His efforts to free himself from the "forest" of worldly cares were impeded by the temptations of the world -- cupidity (including ambition), the pride of life and the lusts of the flesh, symbolized by the three beasts. But a helper is at hand. Virgil appears and explains that he has a commission from three ladies on high to guide him. The ladies are the Blessed Virgin, St. Lucy (whom for some reason never yet explained Dante seems to have regarded as in a special sense his protector) and Beatrice. In Virgil we are apparently intended to see the symbol of what Dante calls philosophy, what we should rather call natural religion; Beatrice standing for theology, or rather revealed religion. Under Virgil's escort Dante is led through the two lower realms of the next world, Hell and Purgatory; meeting on the way with many persons illustrious or notorious in recent or remoter times, as well as many well enough known then in Tuscany and the neighboring states; but who, without the immortality, often unenviable, that the poet has conferred on them, would long ago have been forgotten. Popes, kings, emperors, poets and warriors, Florentine citizens of all degrees, are there found; some doomed to hopeless punishment, others expiating their offenses in milder torments, and looking forward to deliverance in due time. It is remarkable to notice how rarely, if ever, Dante allows political sympathy or antagonism to influence him in his distribution of judgment. Hell is conceived as a vast conical hollow, reaching to the center of the earth. It has three great divisions, corresponding to Aristotle's three classes of vices: incontinence, brutishness and malice. The first are outside the walls of the city of Dis; the second, among whom are included unbelievers, tyrants, suicides, unnatural offenders, usurers, are within; the first apparently on the same level as those without, the rest separated from them by a steep descent of broken rocks. (It should be said that many Dante scholars hold that Aristotle's brutishness has no place in Dante's scheme; but the symmetry of the arrangement, the special reference made to that division, and certain expressions used elsewhere by Dante, seem to make it probable that he would here, as in most other cases, have followed his master in philosophy.) The sinners by malice, which includes all forms of fraud or treachery, are divided from the last by a yet more formidable barrier. They lie at the bottom of a pit, the depth of which is not stated, with vertical sides, and accessible only by supernatural means; a monster named Geryon bearing the poets down on his back. The torments here are of a more terrible, often of a loathsome character. Ignominy is added to pain, and the nature of Dante's demeanor towards the sinners changes from pity to hatred. At the very bottom of the pit is Lucifer, immovably fixed in ice; climbing down his limbs they reach the center of the earth, where a cranny conducts them back to the surface, at the foot of the purgatorial mountain, which they reach as Easter Day is dawning. Before the actual Purgatory is attained they have to climb for the latter half of the day and rest at night. The occupants of this outer region are those who have delayed repentance until death was upon them. They include many of the most famous men of the last thirty years. In the morning the gate is opened, and Purgatory proper is entered. This is divided into seven terraces, corresponding to the seven deadly sins, which encircle the mountain and have to be reached by a series of steep climbs, compared by Dante in one instance to the path from Florence to Samminiato. The penalties are not degrading, but rather tests of patience or endurance; and in several cases Dante has to bear a share in them as he passes. On the summit is the Earth]y Paradise. Here Beatrice appears, in a mystical pageant; Virgil departs, leaving Dante in her charge. By her he is led through the various spheres of which, according to both the astronomy and the theology of the time, Heaven is composed, to the supreme Heaven, or Empyrean, the seat of the Godhead. For one moment there is granted him the intuitive vision of the Deity, and the comprehension of all mysteries, which is the ultimate goal of mystical theology; his will is wholly blended with that of God, and the poem ends.
The Convito, or Banquet, also called Convivio (Bembo uses the first form, Trissino the other), is the work of Dante's manhood, as the Vita Nuova is the work of his youth. It consists in the form in which it has come down to us, of an introduction and three treatises, each forming an elaborate commentary in a long canzone. It was intended, if completed, to have comprised commentaries on eleven more canzoni, making fourteen in all, and in this shape would have formed a tesoro or handbook of universal knowledge, such as Brunetto Latini and others have left to us. It is perhaps the least well known of Dante's Italian works, but crabbed and unattractive as it is in many parts, it is well worth reading, and contains many passages of great beauty and elevation. In deed a knowledge of it is quite indispensable to the full understanding of the Divina Commedia and the De Monarchia. The time of its composition is uncertain. As it stands it has very much the look of being the contents of notebooks partially arranged. Dante mentions princes as living who died in 1309; he does not mention Henry VII as emperor, who succeeded in 1310. There are some passages which seem to have been inserted at a later date. The canzoni upon which the commentary is written were probably composed between 1292 and 1300, when he was seeking in philosophy consolation for the loss of Beatrice. The Convito was first printed in Florence by Buonaccorsi in 1490. It has never been adequately edited.
The Vita Nuova (Young Life or New Life, for both significations seem to be intended) contains the history of his love for Beatrice. He describes how he met Beatrice as a child, himself a child, how he often sought her glance, how she once greeted him in the street, how he feigned a false love to hide his true love, how he fell ill and saw in a dream the death and transfiguration of his beloved, how she died, and how his health failed from sorrow, how the tender compassion of another lady nearly won his heart from its first affection, how Beatrice appeared to him in a vision and reclaimed his heart, and how at last he saw a vision which induced him to devote himself to study that he might be more fit to glorify her who gazes on the face of God forever. This simple story is interspersed with sonnets, ballads and canzoni, arranged with a remarkable symmetry, to which Professor Charles Eliot Norton was the first to draw attention, chiefly written at the time to emphasize some mood of his changing passion. After each of these, in nearly every case, follows an explanation in prose, which is intended to make the thought and argument intelligible to those to whom the language of poetry was not familiar. The whole has a somewhat artificial air, in spite of its undoubted beauty; showing that Dante was still under the influence of the Dugentisti, many of whose conceits he reproduces. The book was probably completed by 1300. It was first printed by Sermartelli in Florence, 1576.
Besides the smaller poems contained in the Vita Nuova and Convito there are a considerable number of canzoni, ballate and sonnetti bearing the poet's name. Of these many undoubtedly are genuine, others as undoubtedly spurious. Some which have been preserved under the name of Dante belong to Dante de Maiano, a poet of a harsher style; others which bear the name of Aldighiero are referable to Dante's sons Jacopo or Pietro, or to his grandsons; others may be ascribed to Dante's contemporaries and predecessors Cino da Pistoia and others. Those which are genuine secure Dante a place among lyrical poets scarcely if at all inferior to that of Petrarch. Most of these were printed in Sonetti e canzoni (Giunta, 1527). The best edition of the Canzoniere of Dante is that by Fraticelli published by BarbÚra at Florence. His collection includes 78 genuine poems, 8 doubtful and 54 spurious. To these are added an Italian paraphrase of the seven penitential psalms in terza rima, and a similar paraphrase of the Credo, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Ave Maria.
The Latin treatise De monarchia, in three books, contains the mature statement of Dante's political ideas. In it he propounds the theory that the supremacy of the emperor is derived from the supremacy of the Roman people over the world, which was given to them direct from God. As the emperor is intended to assure their earthly happiness, so does their spiritual welfare depend upon the pope, to whom the emperor is to do honor as to the first-born of the Father. The date of its publication is almost universally admitted to be the time of the descent of Henry VII into Italy, between 1310 and 1313, although its composition may have been in hand from a much earlier period. The book was first printed by Oporinus at Basel in 1559, and placed on the Index of forbidden books.
The treatise De vulgari eloquentia, in two books, also in Latin, is mentioned in the Convito. Its object was first to establish the Italian language as a literary tongue, and to distinguish the noble or "courtly" speech which might become the property of the whole nation, at once a bond of internal unity and a line of demarcation against external nations, from the local dialects peculiar to different districts; and secondly, to lay down rules for poetical composition in the language so established. The work was intended to be in four books, but only two are extant. The first of these deals with the language, the second with the style and with the composition of the canzone. The third was probably intended to continue this subject, and the fourth was destined to the laws of the ballata and sonetto. It contains much acute criticism of poetry and poetic diction. This work was first published in the Italian translation of Trissino at Vicenza in 1529. The original Latin was not published until 1577 at Paris by Jacopo Corbinelli, one of the Italians who were brought from Florence by Catherine de Medici, from a manuscript now preserved at Grenoble. The work was probably left unfinished in consequence of Dante's death.
Boccaccio mentions in his life of Dante that he wrote two eclogues in Latin in answer to Johannes de Virgilio, who invited him to come from Ravenna to Bologna and compose a great work in the Latin language. The most interesting passage in the work is that in the first poem, where he expresses his hope that when he has finished the three parts of his great poem his grey hairs may be crowned with laurel on the banks of the Arno. Although the Latin of these poems is superior to that of his prose works, we may feel thankful that Dante composed the great work of his life in his own vernacular. The versification, however, is good, and there are pleasant touches of gentle humor. The Eclogues have been edited by Wicksteed and Gardiner (Dante and Giovanni del Virgilio, London, 1902).
A treatise De aqua et terra has come down to us, which Dante tells us was delivered at Mantua in January 1320 (perhaps 1321) as a solution of the question which was being at that time much discussed -- whether in any place on the earth's surface water is higher than the earth. It was first published at Venice in 1508, by an ecclesiastic named Moncetti, from a manuscript which he alleged to be in his possession, but which no one seems to have seen. Its genuineness is accordingly very doubtful; but Dr. Moore has from internal evidence made out a very strong case for it.
The Letters of Dante are among the most important materials for his biography. Giovanni Villani mentions three as specially remarkable -- one to the government of Florence, in which he complains of undeserved exile; another to the emperor Henry VII, when he lingered too long at the siege of Brescia; and a third to the Italian cardinals to urge them to the election of an Italian pope after the death of Clement V. The first of these letters has not come down to us, the two last are extant. Besides these we have one addressed to the cardinal da Prato, one to a Florentine friend refusing the base conditions of return from exile, one to the princes and lords of Italy to prepare them for the coming of Henry of Luxembourg, another to the Florentines reproaching them with the rejection of the emperor, and a long letter to Can Grande della Scala, containing directions for interpreting the Divina Commedia, with special reference to the Paradiso. Of less importance are the letters to the nephews of Count Alessandro da Romena, to the marquis Moroello Malespina, to Cino da Pistoia and to Guido da Polenta. The genuineness of all the letters has at one time or another been impugned; but the more important are now generally accepted.
Dante's reputation has passed through many vicissitudes, and much trouble has been spent by critics in comparing him with other poets of established fame. Read and commented upon with more admiration than intelligence in the Italian universities in the generation immediately succeeding his death, his name became obscured as the sun of the Renaissance rose higher towards its meridian. In the 16th century he was held inferior to Petrarch; in the 17th and first half of the 18th he was almost universally neglected. His fame is now fully vindicated.
Father: Alighiero di Bellincione (d. before 1283)
Mother: Donna Bella degli Abati (d. before 1280)
Wife: Gemma Donati
Daughter: Antonia (nun)
Escaped Death Sentence
Exiled from Florence (1302)
Spanish Inquisition Index of Prohibited Books
Asteroid Namesake 2999 Dante
Is the subject of books:
Dante Alighieri, 1979, BY: Ricardo J. Quinones
Dante the Maker, 1980, BY: William Anderson
Author of books:
Il Convivio (c. 1307, "The Banquet")
De Vulgari Eloquentia (c. 1307, "On Vernacular Eloquence", unfinished)
De Monarchia (c. 1313, "On Monarchy")
La Divina Commedia (1321, "The Divine Comedy")
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