His Early Life
Dante Alighieri was born under the sign of Gemini, he was thought to be born on May 29, but this is not certain. He was born in Florence, the son of Alighiero II, his family was one of lower nobility. His mother died when he was a child and his father when he was eighteen. According to him, the most profound event in his youth was when in 1274 he met Beatrice, whom scholars believe to be Beatrice Portinari, a noblewoman.
It really matters not who she was, for he saw her infrequently and never spoke to her. Nevertheless, she became the focus of his love, and after her death, she became his muse. She is a focal point in his works, including La Vita Nuova(The New Life) and La Divina Commedia(The Divine Comedy). Dante’s education remains unknown; however, his writing skill and knowledge make it evident that he was well-schooled.
It is thought that he attended Florentine schools but also continued learning on his own. He seemed to be influenced greatly by Brunetto Latini, who has a large part in The Divine Comedy. His early writings attracted the attention of Guido Cavalcanti, a popular Italian poet of the day, as Dante’s skill became more defined the two became friends. It is also thought that Dante studied at the university in Bologna around the year 1285.
He became involved in some political altercations, he joined the Guelphs, as opposed to the Ghibellines, and he was involved in a battle and emerged victoriously. It was around this time, 1290, that Beatrice died, after she died he began studying philosophy, he read the works of Boethius and Cicero. He soon after married Gemma Donati, a member of a noble Florentine Guelph family.
He attempted to settle down and forget Beatrice, however, he became more and more engulfed in the party scene, he discovered the pleasure of banquets and was seen engaged in public rhyming contests. These contests were a sort of poetic insult contest that often decayed into vulgarity. Thankfully, this period did not last long, in 1295, Dante suddenly became very interested in the political situation in Florence.
His Adult Life
In the year 1295 he held several local offices, he was then elected to be one of the six magistrates of Florence, and however, he held this position only two months. Dante, from 1295 to 1297, was part of the Special Counsel of the People; he also took part in the campaign for the prior and was a member of the Council of the One Hundred. The political situation in Florence at the time was very turbulent; the two feuding factions within the Guelph party in Florence, the Cerchi and the Donati or the Whites, and The Blacks were both vying for power.
The Blacks, or Donati, were of noble birth and lineage but were not exceedingly rich, and they saw the pope as an ally against imperial power. The Whites, or Cerchi, were not of noble lineage, but had made a vast fortune trading and wished to become a part of the aristocracy, they wished to remain independent of all control, papal or imperial.
After a particularly violent skirmish the leaders of both parties were exiled in order to provide peace, however, Pope Boniface VIII helped the leaders of the Black return. These Blacks seized power and banned Dante from the city for two years and imposed upon him heavy fines, he did not pay the fines, and they said he would be killed should he ever return to Florence.
Dante’s immediate response was a desire to join with the other exiles and organize; they would retake the city by force. The exiled people were more concerned with their own interests than retaking Florence, the movement never even really got underway. There were a few isolated skirmishes, called the Wars of Mugello, but they were all unsuccessful. Dante was disgusted by the utter lack of motivation in his companions, and he decided to go his own way.
Dante spent time in Northern Italy and in Verona, he made his way to Paris around 1307, where he joined the Ghibellines, hoping to unite all of Europe under the reign of an “enlightened emperor”1. There are no certain records documenting Dante’s travels so most of the information on this period is mere speculation. It is thought that while in Northern Italy Dante wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning the Common Speech) and the unfinished Convivio(Banquet)
He probably also began The Divine Comedy around 1307. Dante once again became engulfed in politics around 1310 with the arrival of Henry VII King of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry wanted to bring all of Italy together, Dante supported him in this endeavor. He wrote to many Italian princes and political leaders asking them to welcome Henry, Dante thought this would end the continuing feuds between Italy’s cities.
Some Florentines started a movement against Henry that spread throughout Italy, when Henry finally acted his movement failed miserably. Henry died in 1313 and this obviously brought Dante’s hopes to an end. During this time Dante probably wrote De Monarchia(On Monarchy)
Dante was invited to return to Florence in 1316, however, he was to be treated as a pardoned criminal. Dante refused these terms and continued to live in exile. He spent his last days in Ravenna, dying there on September 13 or 14 in 1321. In the last years of his life, Dante wrote Quaestion de Acqua et Terra (Question of Water and of Earth) and two Latin eclogues.
Florence During Dante’s Time
Dante lived in Florence around the year 1300. The population then was around 90,000 people in the city itself and 80,000 in the surrounding rural areas. The city was run by the following public officials: The mayor, the public defender, the chief of justice, the captain of the guard, the tax assessor, the official in charge of regulations concerning women’s ornaments, the administrator of the trade regulations, the official in charge of the wool guild, the ecclesiastical officials, and the grand inquisitor. Florence was a bustling city and the center of Italian culture during this time period and on through the Renaissance.
His first important work was La Vita Nuova (The New Life), written not that long after Beatrice’s death. It chronicled, in the form of sonnets woven together with prose, his love for her, his premonition of her death, her actual death and his commitment that he would write a work that would be a worthy monument for her.
While remaining in relative obscurity when compared to The Divine Comedy, The New Life is considered a great work, it was of a new format, the finest work of the “new sweet style”1 of contemporary Florentine vernacular poetry. It is considered to be one of the greatest works of European verse ever, Dante portrays his subject using “lofty idealism”1 and suggests a “spiritual significance”1. De Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning Common Speech) was written around 1305.
It is basically an argument for the Italian Language, it defends vernacular and it acts basically as a justification for Dante’s writing in vernacular. Convivio(Banquet) was written between 1304 and 1307 and was intended to be a series of fifteen books, on all the knowledge of the time.
The first book was to be an introduction, and the other fourteen were to take the form of commentary on fourteen poems of Dante, sadly however only four books were finished. De Monarchia(On Monarchy) is a book of Dante’s philosophy, including the need for a supranational Holy Roman Emperor and the need for complete separation of church and state. Quaestio de Acqua et Terra(The Question of Water and of Earth) written near the end of Dante’s life was a fairly minor work, it basically concerned whether or not the water at any point on the surface of the planet was higher than the land.
Quite an important topic indeed…Dante’s crowning achievement, The Divine Comedy takes readers on a descent into hell. Dante’s strong religious background sets the backdrop for this terrifying journey. Readers look onward as human forms are condemned, and as humans are lifted into paradise. This work is often misunderstood; the story is told that Dante was once walking down the street when he saw that two girls shrank away from him.
One spoke to the other, “Did you see him? He’s the one who comes and goes to Hell and brings back news of the damned who live there” The other one answered, “Ah, that’s why his complexion is so dark. The smoke must have blackened him” Many people during his time viewed him as a sorcerer or a mystic. This work can be interpreted on many levels, according to one source the “literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical”1.
Its meaning varies upon the reader, one person may see a beautiful piece of literature, while another may see a frightening glimpse into their future. Some may denounce The Divine Comedy as heresy, while others still may embrace it and welcome its lessons into their lives. It is a story of hellish torment, and eternal paradise, it is a love story, it is the story of a man who becomes lost in the forest of life and finds his way by means of strong guiding forces(the poet Virgil, Beatrice, The Deity). It is the story of coming once again into life and embracing it for what is, a journey through darkness, and an emergence into the light, be that fiery red, or divine white.
1. Infopedia 2.0 Copyright 1996 Softkey Multimedia, Inc.
2. Dante Chronology Copyright 1995 ILT
3. Dante, His Life, His Times, His Works Copyright 1968 Arnoldo Mondadori-Milano Translated From Italian by Giuseppini T. Salvadori and Bernice L. Lewis
4. Volume XI The Chronicle by Giovanni Villani