Books by Dante
Books about Dante

Biography: Dante

Dante was born in Florence, of a bourgeois family of noble descent, the son of Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighiero, a moneylender, and his first wife Bella. He was baptized Durante, later contracted into Dante.

He first saw his lifelong love, Beatrice Portinari (c.1265--90), when they were both nine in 1274. There is no evidence that she returned his passion, and only one further meeting between the two, nine years later, is recorded. She was married at an early age to one Simone de' Bardi, but neither this nor the poet's own subsequent marriage interfered with his pure and platonic devotion to her. Dante married Gemma Donati c.1285, to whom he had been betrothed since 1277. She was the daughter of a powerful Guelph family. Nothing of his wife appears in his writings, but his feelings for Beatrice intensified after her early death in 1290. After this, Dante embarked upon a dedicated period of study of the Classics, religion, and philosophy. The story of his boyish but unquenchable passion is subsequently told in La Vita nuova (c.1293, The New Life), a collection of lyric poems in the form of an autobiographical novel.

In 1289 he fought as a cavalryman at Campaldino, where Florence defeated the Ghibellines, and at Caprona. He entered public life in 1295 by joining the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, and from there moved to public office. He is recorded in the guild register as "Dante d'Alighieri, Poeta '. In c.1300 he became politically active in Florence during the struggles of Guelphs with Ghibellines, further complicated by the struggles between the powerful anti-papal Colonna family and Pope Boniface VIII.

After filling minor public offices and going on some embassies abroad, Dante briefly became one of the six priors of Florence (1300). He was then recorded as being the leader of a large group of Guelphs, and he procured the banishment of the heads and leaders of the rival factions, showing characteristic sternness and impartiality to Guelph and Ghibelline alike. In 1301, following the threatened interference of Charles of Valois against the Guelphs, he was sent on an embassy to Pope Boniface VIII in Rome. Political machinations and deception meant he never again set foot in his native city. He was banished from Florence in 1309, accused of opposing the Pope and Charles of Valois, and he was sentenced to death in his absence. From then on he was a wanderer, almost having to beg his way through life. He eventually settled in Ravenna (1318), where he remained for most of the rest of his life.

During his exile he was politically active, and he also completed his most celebrated work, the epic poem Divinia commedia (Divine Comedy), begun c.1307. It is his spiritual testament, narrating a journey through Hell ( Inferno ) and Purgatory ( Purgatoria ), guided by Virgil, and finally to Paradise ( Paradiso ), guided by Beatrice. It gives an insight into the highest culture and knowledge of the age in poetic form. The Divine Comedy elevated the vernacular Italian language from daily use into art. This was a breakthrough, and Dante had hesitated to employ Italian on such a theme; he is said to have begun his poem in Latin. However, he became a champion of the use of vernacular as a vehicle for great art, writing persuasively in its favour in the unfinished De vulgari eloquentia (c.1304--7, Concerning Vernacular Eloquence).

Another important work is the fragment called the Convivio (c.1304--7, Banquet), which takes the form of a commentary on some of the author's canzoni , or short poems, of which there are only three. The work, if completed, would have contained 14. De monarchia (c.1313, On Monarchy), in Latin, expounded Dante's theory that the pope should not have temporal authority over a nation's monarch. Canzoniere is a collection of short poems, canzoni , sonnets, etc, and there are a dozen epistles addressed mainly to leading statesmen or rulers.

Dante was a political thinker in the mediaeval tradition, a rhetorician, and a philosopher, the chief poet of the Italians, and one of the world's greatest writers. He had seven children: six sons and a daughter named Antonia who, after her father's death, became a nun, taking the name of Sister Beatrice. He died from malaria shortly after he had finished the Paradiso



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