Childhood & Early Life
Dante was born in the middle of the thirteenth century in the City of Florence into a noble family of ancient lineage. Deducing from autobiographical sketches and clues he had provided in the ‘Divine Comedy’, historians believe his year of birth to be 1265.
In the ‘Divine Comedy’, we find that on Good Friday of 1300, “Midway upon the journey of our life", the narrator is lost in a dark wood. Since the Biblical lifespan is seventy years, it has been deduced that he was then thirty-five, making his year of birth 1265.
Some verses in the ‘Divine Comedy’ also suggest that he was born under the sign of Gemini. Looking back into the Julian Calendars, we find that, the sun was in Gemini sometime between May 11 and June 11, 1265. Therefore, it has been deduced he was born around that time.
Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a money lender. Politically, he was a Guleph, whose members supported the Pope. Gulephs were in power till they were routed in 1260 in the Battle of Montapertri by the Ghibellines, the supporters the Holy Roman Emperor.
The fact Alighiero di Bellincione survived the massacre to start a family goes on to show that he enjoyed certain privileges. It is also believed that the incident left the family poorer.
Dante’s mother, Bella, was probably from the Abati family. She died when Dante was around nine or ten years old. He was his parents’ only child. Later, his father married Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi and from this union, he had one half-brother, Francesco, and one half-sister, Gaetana (Tana).
Dante started his education at home, later entering a Franciscan school at Santa Croce. Here among other subjects, he studied Tuscan poetry, which sparked his interest in the Occitan poetry of the troubadours. Later, he is also believed to have studied at the University of Bologna.
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Dante’s father died in early 1280s. Soon after that, Florentine statesman and poet, Brunettoo Latini, took up Dante’s guardianship. Although many biographers believe that Latini was Dante’s teacher, as Secretary to the Council of the Florentine Republic, he was far too an important and busy man to be a teacher.
It is however certain that Dante and Latini shared an intellectual-cum-affectionate bond. It is possible that the elder statesman provided a general direction to the budding poet and Dante in his gratitude had mentioned him as his teacher. This was also the time when he started penning his own poems.
One of his most important works of this early period was ‘La Vita Nuova’ (the New Life), which he started writing in around 1283. Written in Italian rather than Latin, the book took 12 years to complete and was published in 1295.
Also around 1283, Dante’s interest in poetry led him to meet many Florentine poets, such as Lapo Gianni and Guido Cavalcanti. Eventually they formed a new movement called ‘Doice stil novo’ (in Tuscan ‘stilnovisti’), of which Latini was also a member. Gradually, a close friendship developed between Dante and Guido.
Both Dante and Guido were interested in the effects of love on human mind, especially from the philosophical point of view. But already in love with Beatrice Portinari, Dante started developing a notion that love could lead to spiritual perfection while Guido’s interest was confined to natural philosophy.
With encouragement from Latini, Dante now began to study the works of Latin poets like Homer and Virgil. He was particularly fond of Virgil, taking him as the authority in the art of poetry writing, calling him his guide.
War & Politics
Although he was immersed in his literally pursuit, Dante was not indifferent to the current political condition. In June 1289, as the Battle og Campaldino broke out, Dante joined the fight, siding with the Gulephs. Subsequently, on winning the battle, the Gulephs formed the government.
In 1290, Beatrice Portinari, whom he loved whole-heartedly, died, leaving Dante heartbroken. At the advice of Latini, he now began to study Cicero and Ovid. Sometime now, he also became acquainted with the Thomistic doctrine of mysticism, studying the subject at Dominican school at Santa Maria Novella.
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In spite of the grief and increasing interest in poetry and philosophy, Dante remained active in political sphere. In 1294, he waschosen as one of the escorts of Charles Martel of Anjou, whose grandfather was Charles I of Naples.
In 1295, the Gulephs, who came from wealthy mercantile class, enacted a new law, requiring public servants to belong to any commercial or artisan guild. Dante now entered the Apothecaries' Guild and in the same year, he was elected to the City Council, thereafter holding various offices over next few years.
Florence was then rife with political unrest. The Gulephs were divided into two factions; Whites, who were in power and wanted to be free of Papal interference and Blacks, who supported the Pope. Dante, a White, now spent considerable time, trying to bring together the two rival factions.
In 1300, Dante was appointed one of the six ruling magistrates of Florence. Called a Prior, he held the position for two months. In the following year, he was a member of the Council of the One Hundred, where he took active part.
In 1301, it was rumored that Pope Boniface VIII wanted to take possession of the City of Florence. In October 1301, Dante and few others were sent to Rome to ascertain his real intention. But as they reached, the Pope sent back all except Dante.
In November 1301, while Dante was in Rome, the Black Gulephs seized power and banished all important White leaders from the city. They also trumped up charges of corruption and conspiracy against Dante and ordered him to appear before the Council, which Dante, fearing for his life, decided not to do.
In March 1302, Dante was tried in absentia. Found guilty, he was heavily fined and banished for two years. His property was also confiscated, which made it impossible for him to pay the fine.
When he did not or could not pay, he was declared a perpetual absconder. It was further declared that if he tried to enter Florence without paying the fine, he would be burned at stake.
Although it was a risk, Dante tried unsuccessfully to enter the city several times in collaboration with other White leaders. Ultimately, fed up with the infighting and ineffectiveness of the Whites, he decided to sever all ties with them.
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Initially, Dante lived for sometime at Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo I della Scala. From there he went to Sarzana in Liguria before moving to Lucca. Some also believe that traveling around, he went as far as Paris, but there is no proof of him ever leaving Italy.
Free from his involvement of Florentine politics, Dante now concentrated on his literally pursuit and also began studying philosophy with a new fervor. Sometime in 1303, he started writing ‘De vulgari eloquentia’, a theoretical treatise in Latin on the Italian vernacular.
Other important works of this period were ‘Convivio’, in which he defended the use of the vernacular as a suitable medium both for literature and scientific subjects and ‘De monarchia’, which reflects his political theory. Possibly in 1308, he also started on his most famous work, ‘Commedia’.
In 1310, Dante saw a hope of returning to Florence, when Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg, marched into Italy with large troops. He wrote to the Emperor as well as other princes, urging them to destroy the Black Gulephs.
Although in 1312, Henry VII defeated the Black Gulephs, but with Henry VII’s death in 1313, Dante’s hopes of returning to his city were forever dashed. His letters to the Emperor and his other writings had made him unpopular with both the factions of the Gulephs.
Therefore when in 1315, Uguccione della Faggiuola, who was in control of the town, forced the authorities to extend pardon to all, Dante was given humiliating conditions. He was not only to do public penance, but also pay a heavy fine. Preferring to remain in exile, he refused.
In retaliation, the councilors at Florence not only confirmed his death sentence, but also extended it to his sons. Fortunately, by then, they had also joined him in his exile at Verona, where he had been living under the protection of Can Grande della Scala since 1314.
In 1318, Dante moved to Ravenna on the invitation of Prince Guido Novello da Polenta and spent the rest of his life there, completing ‘Commedia’ in 1320. Although he continued to hope that he would be allowed to return to Florence on honorable terms, it never happened.
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Dante is best remembered for his long poem, ‘Divina Commedia’ or ‘The Divine Comedy’. It is to be noted that the original title of the work was ‘Commedia’; but after his death, Renaissance humanist, Giovanni Boccaccio, added the word ‘Divina’, making it ‘Divina Commedia’.
Widely considered the foremost work in Italian literature, it is divided into three parts; Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Allegorically, it depicts the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; but in a deeper sense, drawing heavily on Christian beliefs and philosophy, it talks about the soul's journey towards God.
Personal Life & Legacy
When Dante was just twelve years old, he was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of Manetto Donati of the powerful Donati family. They got married around in 1285 and had three children; Pietro, Jacopo and Antonia.
Although he married Gemma, the love of his life was Beatrice Portinari. She is believed to be the daughter of well-known banker, Folco Portinari, and the wife of another banker, Simone dei Bardi.
Dante first saw her when he was nine years old and immediately fell in love with her. Thereafter, he met her only once. Yet, she is believed to be the chief inspiration behind his first major work, ‘Vita Nuava’ as well as the character of ‘Beatrice’ in ‘Divine Comedy’.
Dante spent the last years of his life at Ravenna. In 1321, he went on a diplomatic mission to Venice. On his way back, he contracted malaria and died from it on 14 September 1321. He was buried at the Church of San Pier Maggiore at Ravenna.
Florence eventually regretted Dante’s exile and tried to bring back his remains several times. But the custodian at Ravenna refused part with it, going to the extent of hiding it in a false wall.
In 1483, Bernardo Bembo, praetor of Venice, erected a tomb for Dante at Ravenna. In 1829, another tomb was built for him at Florence, but it remains empty to this day.
Dante’s works continues to inspire poets even to this day. His ‘Divine Comedy’ is now considered a major part of Western canon. On April 30, 1921, Pope Benedict XV, promulgated the eleventh encyclical, ‘In praeclara summorum’, in his honor.