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Dante Alighieri

Many people consider Dante as the greatest medieval poet, and by others, as the greatest Italian poet of all time. Dante was born Durante Alighieri sometime late in May of 1265, in Florence to Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighiero and his wife Bella. His father was a nobleman of moderate fortune.

When Dante was nine, an event occurred that would influence his writings for the rest of his life. In this year, Dante met an eight-year-old girl named Beatrice. Dante once wrote, ". . . From that time forward, Love quite governed my soul." Dante and Beatrice would not see each other again until 1283, nine years later. In an attempt to conceal his ardent love for Beatrice, Dante wrote a few poems for two other women. The attention given to these women offended Beatrice and she afterwards refused to give her love to Dante. She married and died shortly after in 1290.

A year after Beatrice's death, Dante married Gemma Donati, a marriage arranged by Dante's father in 1277. Dante remained faithful to Beatrice until his death in spite of this. He and Gemma Donati had two sons, Piero and Jacopo, both of whom wrote commentaries on La Divina Commedia, and two daughters, Beatrice and Antonia.

Dante's first work, La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"), is also one of his two greatest works, second only to La Divina Commedia. It is written alternately in prose and verse. La Vita Nuova is the autobiography of a still young poet, particularly revolving around his love for Beatrice. He began to write La Vita Nuova soon after seeing Beatrice in 1283, although it was not completely finished until after her death in 1292. The concluding canzino, Canzino 43, of La Vita Nuova describes Dante's intense desire to write more fully on the subject of Beatrice. This passage foreshadows La Divina Commedia.

Much of Dante's life involved political struggle. Indeed, politics is a major influence of Dante's writings, second only to Beatrice. To fully understand Dante's struggles, one must understand the state of Florentine government during the late 1200's. When Dante was but a few months old, Italy broke away from Imperial power. Italy's new rulers were Guelfs, people who sided with the pope on all matters. But a struggle for power broke out that lasted all of Dante's lifetime and for years afterward. The Guelfs were split into two parties, the Blacks, a group made up of middle class men who were willing to work with the Church in order to gain power, and the Whites, a group made up of noblemen who wished for complete independence from both church and imperial power. Dante was a member of the Whites, the minority.

In an attempt to oppress the Whites, Florentines excluded all citizens of noble birth from public office. In the next few years, the policy relaxed, and allowed any guild member to run for public office. Soon after, Dante became a member of the guild of physicians and apothecaries, making it possible for him to hold office. He was elected a "Prior of the Guilds" on June 15, 1300, one of the supreme executive authorities in the state. One of his most important measures as prior was to banish the most sectarian chiefs of the Blacks and the Whites, in an attempt to solve the problem of partisan strife. One of these exiles was Guido Calvacanti, one of Dante's closest friends. Also during Dante's priorship, Pope Boniface VIII summoned a foreign army to Italy to crush the anti-Church parties. Dante became one of Boniface's most outspoken critics, a fact that is evident in several passages of The Inferno.

In 1301, Dante went to Rome in an attempt to compromise with Boniface. Instead, he was kept there against his will while the Black party gained power. On January 27, 1302, the Blacks, having taken control of Florence, banished Dante and four other Whites from the city. Dante would never see Florence or Gemma Donati ever again.

Dante spent the last twenty years of his life in exile. Dante described himself as being "a Florentine by birth, not in spirit," and as a citizen of the Christian world. Apparently Dante travelled all throughout Italy during this time, although little is known about his life during this period. His life as an exile was a bitter and hard one. He spent the rest of his life living with friends and sponging off others. During these years though, Dante started writing many important works, including Il Convivio ("The Banquet"), De Vulgari Eloquentia (a book about the Italian language) and De Monarchia (a book detailing Dante's specific political ideas).

In 1315, Dante began to live in Verona as a guest of Can Grande Della Scalla, a Ghibelline leader, where he would live for the rest of his life. Dante also began to write La Divina Commedia ("The Divine Comedy") in this year. La Divina Commedia is Dante's greatest work and describes his journey through Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, guided by his idol Virgil and his eternal love, Beatrice. The work was originally entitled simply Commedia. "Divina" was added afterwards to describe the matter of the book. Dante entitled the work Commedia ("Comedy") because it was written in the vernacular language instead of Latin, a fact that dismayed many of his peers. Dante's last remaining hope in life was that this work would allow him to reenter Florence. Shortly after finishing Paradiso, the final canto of La Divina Commedia and the final exaltation of Beatrice, Dante died on September 14, 1321.


Bibliography


Click here to find out more about the works of Dante
The John Ciardi translation of The Divine Comedy is the best version I've ever seen. Pretty soon I should have links up so you can buy his translations from Amazon.com.
Dante Alighieri on the Web is the best Dante site of which I know.

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This page last updated 6-Aug-99 11:24 AM. CDT
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