Dante Alighieri, full name Durante degli Alighieri, is considered to be not only the greatest Italian poet but perhaps also the greatest poet of all time; he was certainly the leading literary figure during the Middle Ages. In Italy he is known as 'il Sommo Poeta' which, literally translated, means 'the Supreme Poet'. He is also known as 'the Father of the Italian Language'.
He was born in Florence, Tuscany, Italy in 1265, somewhere around the middle to end of May, or perhaps early June but the general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was somewhere around 21st May. His first name was shortened to 'Dante' by his family and friends and this is how he became known throughout his life. He died in the middle of September in 1320 in Ravenna, Emilia Romagna, Italy.
Dante's House in Florence - Photo: Sailko
Dante always claimed that his family was directly descended from the ancient Romans but there is no proof of this. His father was a White Guelph (member of a political alliance supporting the Pope) which insinuates that the family enjoyed a certain status and protection during the 13th century. Dante's mother, Bella, died before he was ten years old but his father remarried and his new wife gave birth to two children, a son, Francesco and a daughter, Gaetana.
Very little is known about what kind of education Dante may have received. He is most likely to have studied at a school attached to the church or at home, although he is known to have studied Tuscan poetry.
Statue of Dante in Florence - Photo: Jörg Bittner
It was common practice in this era for parents to form contracts of marriage for their children and for them to be married at a very early age. When Dante was 9 years old he met a girl of the same age, Beatrice Portinari, and although he never spoke to her he claimed it was love at first sight. When Dante was 12 years old he was promised by his father to Gemma, the daughter of the powerful Donati family. Soon afterwards he married Gemma di Manetto Donati and together they had three children, two boys, Pietro and Jacopo and a girl, Antonia.
Dante met Beatrice again after he was 18 and saw her frequently but only to exchange greetings in the street and he never actually got to know her very well. In spite of this his love for her never died and in fact he wrote several sonnets to her but none, it seems, to his wife Gemma. His daughter, Antonia, eventually became a nun and took the name Sister Beatrice.
His love for Beatrice became his reason not only for living but also for writing poetry and in many of his poems she is portrayed as a divine being watching over him and giving him instructions. It was from this type of love poetry that Dante coined the phrase 'dolce stil novo' (sweet new style) and along with Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia he explored new ways with this style of Italian love poetry and the three of them became leaders in this new form of verse.
Statue of Dante, Uffizi Gallery, Florence - Photo: JoJan
Dante, along with most of his fellow Florentines, became heavily involved with the politics of the day and was a staunch supporter of the pope and a member, like his father, of the White Guelphs. On June 11th 1289 he fought in the battle of Campaldino against the Ghibellines. As a politician he accomplished little, but held various offices over some years in Florence which was a city rife with political unrest. After being part of a delegation sent to Rome in 1301 Dante was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine. The poet remained in Rome at the suggestion of the Pope and was therefore considered to be an absconder. He did not pay the fine, in part because he believed he was not guilty and in part because all his assets in Florence had been seized by the Black Guelphs. He was condemned to perpetual exile and if he returned to Florence without paying the fine he could be burned at the stake.
He took part in several attempts by the White Guelphs to regain power, but these failed due to deceit and treachery which made him bitter and he distanced himself from politics, accepting that he could not return to Florence. He first went to Verona and then moved to Sarzana in Liguria and is supposed to have also lived in Lucca for a while. There is no evidence that he left Italy at any time during his exile from Florence.
When Beatrice died in 1290 Dante sought refuge in Latin literature before dedicating himself to philosophical studies at religious schools. This study, unhindered by the daily business of politics which used to take up much of his time, heightened his command of literature and philosophy and his writing during this time became grander and more assured than before. It was around this point that one of his greatest works, Commedia, was conceived.
A fresco of Dante
Meanwhile, in Florence, most of the White Guelphs in exile were pardoned and allowed to return to their home town. However, Dante had gone too far by previously writing violent political letters against the Black Guelphs and his sentence was not revoked. In 1312 there was an assault on Florence and the Black Guelphs were defeated, but there is no evidence that Dante was involved in either the politics or the attack.
After this Florence was forced to grant an amnesty to any of those remaining in exile, including Dante, but for this, Florence required public penance in addition to a heavy fine. Dante refused, preferring to remain in exile but when Florence was finally defeated, Dante's death sentence was changed to house arrest on condition that he went to Florence to swear he would never enter the town again. He refused to go, and his death sentence was not only retained but also extended to his sons. Dante always felt that his exile from the town he loved had stripped him of his identity and heritage and spent the rest of his life hoping that he would be invited back on moral terms.
In 1318 he was invited to Ravenna by Prince Guido Novello da Polenta and Dante accepted the invitation. He finished another major work here, Paradiso, before he died in 1321, aged 56. He is believed to have contracted malaria whilst undertaking a diplomatic mission to Venice. He was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called San Francesco) and later, Bernardo Bembo, praetor (an ancient Roman magistrate) of Venice, erected a tomb for him in 1483.
Dante's tomb in Ravenna - Photo: Genuae
Florence eventually regretted Dante's exile and the city made repeated requests for the return of his remains. The custodians of his body in Ravenna refused and at one point went so far as to conceal the bones in a false wall of the monastery. Nevertheless, a tomb was built for him in the basilica of Santa Croce in Florence in 1829 but it has remained empty to this day and the remains of Dante continue to rest in Ravenna.