BORN: 1265, Florence, Italy
DIED: 1321, Ravenna, Italy
New Life (c. 1293)
The Divine Comedy (1307-1321)
Dante. Dante, illustration by Gustav Dore
Considered the finest poet that Italy has ever produced, Dante Alighieri is also celebrated as a major influence on western European culture. He wrote The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia, 1307-1321), the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature in a modern European language. Called ‘‘the Supreme Poet’’ in Italy, he forms, along with Petrarch and Boccaccio, one of ‘‘the three fountains,’’ so called because from them all later literature seemed to flow. His championing of using Italian instead of Latin in his writings has also led to his being called ‘‘the father of the Italian language.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city- states. In particular, Florence was torn apart by strife between two warring political factions: the Guelphs, who were loyal to the pope, and the Ghibelines, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor. Even within these factions, however, there were factions, and Dante’s relationship with the various power brokers of Florence had a direct impact on his fortunes. Dante may be considered the greatest and last Italian medieval poet, although he paved the way for the great artistic and scientific flowering known as the Italian Renaissance, which would take root in Florence late in the fourteenth century.
Early Life in Florence. Dante was born in Florence, the son of Bellincione d’Alighiero. His family descended, he tells us, from ‘‘the noble seed’’ of the Roman founders of Florence. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade.
Although his family was reduced to modest circumstances, Dante was able to live as a gentleman and to pursue his studies. It is probable that he attended the Franciscan school of Santa Croce and the Dominican school of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas and of the mysticism that was to become the foundation of his philosophical culture. It is known from his own testimony that in order to perfect his literary style he also studied with Brunetto Latini, the Florentine poet and master of rhetoric. Perhaps encouraged by Brunetto in his pursuit of learning, Dante traveled to Bologna, where he probably attended the well-known schools of rhetoric.
Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but his father died before 1283, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father’s previous arrangements, he married Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.
Lyric Poetry. Dante began early in life to compose poetry, an art he taught himself as a young man. Through his love lyrics he became known to other Florentine poets, and most important to him was his friendship with Guido Cavalcanti, which resulted from an exchange of sonnets.
Both Dante and Guido were concerned with the effects of love on the mind, particularly from a philosophical point of view. Only Dante, however, began gradually to develop the idea that love could become the means of spiritual perfection. While Guido was more interested in natural philosophy, Dante assiduously cultivated his knowledge of the Latin poets, particularly Virgil, whom he later called his guide and authority in the art of poetry.
The Love of Beatrice. During his youth Dante had known a young, noble Florentine woman whose grace and beauty so impressed him that he immortalized her in his poetry as the idealized ‘‘Beatrice,’’ the ‘‘bringer of blessings,’’ who seemed ‘‘a creature come from heaven to earth, a miracle manifest in reality.’’ Dante’s Beatrice is believed to have been Bice, the daughter of Folco Portinari, and later the wife of Simone dei Bardi. Dante had seen her for the first time when both were nine years old; he had named her in a ballad among the sixty fairest women of Florence. But it was only later that idealized ‘‘Beatrice’’ took on the role of Dante’s muse, or inspiration, and became the guide of his thoughts and emotions.
When the young Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, Dante was overcome with grief but found consolation in thoughts of her glory in heaven. He was prompted to gather from among all his poems those that had been written in her honor or had some bearing on his love for her. This plan resulted in the small volume of poetry and prose, the New Life (Vita nuova, c. 1293), one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose.
Political Intrigues. Dante’s literary interests did not isolate him from the events of his times. On the contrary, he was involved in the political life of Florence. In 1289 he had fought with the Florentine cavalry at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he joined the guild of physicians and pharmacists (membership in a guild being a precondition for holding public office in Florence). A year later he participated in a citizens’ government known as the Council of the Hundred; and in 1300 he was elected to one of six offices of prior, or president, of the Florentine guilds.
As a prominent politician, Dante aligned himself with the ‘‘White’’ Guelphs. The Guelphs were the Florentine political faction that supported the pope, but the White Guelphs disagreed with some of the pope’s policies. The ‘‘Black’’ Guelphs remained uncritically supportive of the pope. In October 1301 Dante was sent in a delegation from Florence to Pope Boniface VIII, and during his absence the Blacks gained control of Florence. In the resulting banishment of the Whites, Dante was sentenced to exile. Despite various attempts to regain admission to Florence, he was never to enter his native city again.
Exile In exile, Dante traveled from city to city, biding his time and hoping outside forces would change the political climate in Florence so that he might return. His hopes were raised when Emperor Henry VII’s forces descended into Italy in 1310 to restore justice and order among the cities and to reunite church and state. When Henry VII, whose efforts proved fruitless, died in Siena in 1313, Dante lost every hope of restoring himself to an honorable position in Florence. His Latin treatise De monarchia, is a statement of Dante’s political theories and as a practical guide toward the restoration of peace in Europe under a temporal monarch in Rome. This work was probably written around the time of Henry VII’s military efforts in Italy, and was written in anticipation of or in response to the campaign.
In 1315 Dante twice refused pardons offered him by the citizens of Florence under humiliating conditions. He and his children were consequently condemned to death as rebels. He spent his last years in Tuscany, in Verona, and finally in Ravenna. There, under the patronage of Guido da Polenta and joined by his children and possibly also by his wife, Dante was greatly esteemed and spent a happy and peaceful period at work on his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. This brought together all of the literary and philosophical influences of Dante’s life. Dante’s goal in the work, he revealed, was ‘‘to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.’’ He achieved his goal: the work was an immediate sensation, and its perceived value and importance has grown with each passing generation. Dante died on September 13 or 14, 1321, still in exile, but in 1373, more than half a century after Dante’s death in exile, the city of Florence honored its native poet by appointing Giovanni Boccaccio, the eminent writer and scholar, to deliver a series of public lectures on The Divine Comedy.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dante's famous contemporaries include:
Petrarch (1304-1374): Often called the father of Italian humanism, Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch, as he is known in English) was the first to seriously advocate the use of Italian in works of literature and was largely responsible for popularizing the sonnet.
Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337): A painter and architect from Florence, Giotto is usually credited with being the first artist to break away from the artistic traditions of the Middle Ages, thus setting in motion that which would eventually mature into the artistic Italian Renaissance.
Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303): Patron of Giotto, Boniface is mentioned in both The Decameron and La Divina Commedia; in neither case in a flattering light due to his political activities. Dante goes so far as to imagine meeting Boniface in Hell, condemned for practicing simony, or the selling of holy offices.
Works in Literary Context
Dante’s work can be seen as the climax of the late medieval period in Europe. Dante’s masterpiece was also an historic triumph for the Italian language, which, owing to the undisputed primacy of Latin as the idiom of medieval science and literature, was considered vulgar. Despite Dante’s universality and cosmic view of life, there is something quintessentially Italian about The Divine Comedy. Probing the expressive resources and expanding the horizons of the Italian language, the poet created what is widely considered the foundation of Italian literature and a point of reference for scores of later writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, and Jorge Luis Borges.
The Spiritual Journey. The literal narrative of the work involves Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory on his way to Paradise. Thus, The Divine Comedy is part of a long tradition of stories about journeys through temptations and ‘‘evil’’ toward ultimate redemption. The ancient Greek epic the Odyssey by Homer and Virgil’s epic The Aeneid (directly influenced by Homer’s work) are both pre-Chrisian tales of spiritual journeys. Christian writers have used the idea of the spiritual journey to describe the path of mankind in a state of sin moving away from temptation and toward salvation. St. Augustine’ Confessions is an example of a personal narrative about a spiritual journey to salvation. Numerous works of fiction follow the pattern of the spiritual journey, too, including Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s 2000 novel Soul Mountain.
Allegory. Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of all humankind through earthly life. An allegory is a mode of literature in which the elements of a story are meant to be read figuratively, as symbols. In The Divine Comedy, for example, the poet finds himself in a dark wood (a symbol of sin); he tries to escape by climbing a mountain illuminated by the sun (symbolizing God). Impeded by the sudden appearance of three beasts, which symbolize the major divisions of sin in the Inferno, he is about to be driven back when Virgil (representing human reason) appears, sent to Dante’s aid by Beatrice. Virgil becomes Dante’s guide through Hell, in a descent which is the first stage in his ascent to God in humility.
The most famous examples of ancient, pre-Christian allegories include Plato’s famous ‘‘Allegory of the Cave’’ and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524 C.E.), which Dante studied. Another Christian writer famous for his use of allegory was John Bunyan, author of A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which was distinctly Protestant in its outlook and was read widely by the Puritan settlers of North America. American author Nathaniel Hawthorne also made frequent use of allegory, especially in short stories such as ‘‘Young Goodman Brown.’’ More recent examples of allegorical fiction include William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Decameron (c. 1353), a collection of stories by Giovanni Boccaccio. A medieval allegory of one hundred short tales told as the Black Death ravages the countryside, the bawdy tales of love's rising and falling fortunes satirizes Dante's literary style.
Canterbury Tales (c. 1380s), a collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is often compared to Dante, for he too chose to write in the vernacular, in his case English. Borrowing the frame structure of The Decameron, Chaucer's unfinished masterpiece presents a series of tales told along a pilgrimage route to Canterbury Cathedral.
The Song of Hiawatha (1855), a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This epic poem is written in the form of an ancient Finnish saga.
Works in Critical Context
Dante is known primarily for his masterwork The Divine Comedy, which has earned almost universal acclaim since its publication.
The Divine Comedy. Victor Hugo summed up the nineteenth-century romantic view of The Divine Comedy thus: ‘‘Dante has constructed within his own mind the bottomless pit. He has made the epic of the spectres. He rends the earth; in the terrible hole he has made, he puts Satan. Then he pushes the world through Purgatory up to Heaven. Where all else ends, Dante begins. Dante is beyond man.’’ The general enthusiasm of the Romantic era for The Divine Comedy—also evidenced by tributes from such philosophers as Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel—secured Dante’s preeminent position in world literature. Throughout the nineteenth century, The Divine Comedy—especially the Inferno—became the subject of extensive and detailed literary, historical, philological, theological, and philosophical analysis.
The eminent twentieth-century poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges has recognized the relevance of The Divine Comedy for modern readers, asserting that it ‘‘is a book that everyone ought to read. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of the greatest gift that literature can give us; to submit to a strange asceticism.’’
Dante’s Other Works. The monumental success of The Divine Comedy has all but overshadowed Dante’s other works, which were also highly influential in his day. These include a collection of early canzoni published in New Life. Critics have praised these lyrics for their stil nuovo, or ‘‘new style,’’ a refreshing and innovative approach to love poetry that equates the love experience with a mystical spiritual revelation.
Responses to Literature
1. In addition to his epic poetry, Dante wrote many sonnets as well. The Italian sonnet is one of the most popular and enduring forms of poetry. Research the properties of the Italian sonnet and write one of your own. The traditional subject is about love, but you can write about anything that interests you!
2. In The Divine Comedy Dante is led by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. What were some of the circumstances in Dante’s life and the times he lived in that led him to use a pagan instead of a Christian guide in his narrative?
3. What were Dante’s views of religion when he wrote The Divine Comedy? How did he feel about the papacy? Why did he meet some popes in Hell? What was the state of the Church during Dante’s lifetime?
4. Dante’s view of the afterlife is certainly one of the more gripping and imaginative interpretations. Research other views of the afterlife held by other Christian writers over the centuries. How are their views different? How are they the same?
The Divine Comedy. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Boston and New York. 1895.
The Divine Comedy. Translated by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.
The Divine Comedy. Translated by James Finn Cotter. Stony Brook, N.Y.: Forum Italicum, 1987.
Bergin, Thomas G., editor. From Time to Eternity: Essays on Dante’s Divine Comedy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967.
Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Volume 3. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 1989.
Limentani, U., editor. The Mind of Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.