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 noble woman. It really matter's 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 an 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 Chibellines, and he was involved in a battle and emerged
victorious. 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, however, he held this position only two
months. Dante, from 1295 to 1297, was part of the Special Council 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, there 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 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 signifigance"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 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
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. It's 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 it's lessons into their lives.
It is a story of hellish torment, and eternal paradise, it is a love story, it is the story
of 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 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