|Nicknames:||"The Supreme Poet", "il Sommo Poeta", "Father of the Italian language"|
|Birthplace:||Firenze, Toscana, Italia|
|Death:||Died in Ravenna, Emilia Romagna, Italia|
|Cause of death:||Malaria?|
|Occupation:||Statesman, poet, language theorist|
|Managed by:||Yigal Burstein / יגאל בורשטיין|
About Dante Alighieri
Durante degli Alighieri (May/June c.1265 – September 14, 1321), commonly known as Dante, was a major Florentine poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.
In Italy he is known as "The Supreme Poet" (il Sommo Poeta) or just il Poeta. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are also known as "the three fountains" or "the three crowns". Dante is also called the "Father of the Italian language".
Dante was born in Florence, Italy. The exact date of Dante's birth is not known, although it is generally believed to be around 1265. This can be deduced from autobiographic allusions in La Divina Commedia, "the Inferno" (Halfway through the journey we are living, implying that Dante was around 35 years old, as the average lifespan according to the Bible (Psalms 89:10, Vulgate) is 70 years; and as the imaginary travel took place in 1300, Dante must have been born around 1265). Some verses of the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy also provide a possible clue that he was born under the sign of Gemini—"As I revolved with the eternal twins, I saw revealed from hills to river outlets, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious" (XXII 151-154). In 1265 the Sun was in Gemini approximately during the period 11 May to 11 June.
Dante claimed that his family descended from the ancient Romans (Inferno, XV, 76), but the earliest relative he could mention by name was Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about 1100. Dante's father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a White Guelph who suffered no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the Battle of Montaperti in the mid 13th century. This suggests that Alighiero or his family enjoyed some protective prestige and status, although some suggest that the politically inactive Alighiero was of such low standing that he was not considered worth exiling.
Dante's family had loyalties to the Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the Papacy and which was involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor. The poet's mother was Bella degli Abati. She died when Dante was not yet ten years old, and Alighiero soon married again, to Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. It is uncertain whether he really married her, as widowers had social limitations in these matters, but this woman definitely bore two children, Dante's half-brother Francesco and half-sister Tana (Gaetana). When Dante was 12, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Manetto Donati, member of the powerful Donati family. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common and involved a formal ceremony, including contracts signed before a notary. Famously, Dante had by this time fallen in love with another, Beatrice Portinari (known also as Bice), whom he first met when he was nine years old. Years after his marriage to Gemma, he claims to have met Beatrice again; although he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems. (Dante scholar Dorothy L. Sayers, following the lead of Giovanni Boccaccio, asserts that Dante did not actually marry Gemma until the mid-1290s, after Beatrice's death.) Dante on the Italian €2.00 coin based on a portrait by Raphael
Dante fought with the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289). This victory brought forth a reformation of the Florentine constitution. To take any part in public life, one had to be enrolled in one of the city's many commercial or artisan guilds, so Dante entered the guild of physicians and apothecaries. In the following years, his name is occasionally found recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic. A substantial portion of minutes from such meetings from 1298-1300 were lost during the Second World War, however, and consequently the true extent of Dante's participation in the city's councils is somewhat uncertain.
Dante had several children with Gemma. As often happens with significant figures, many people subsequently claimed to be Dante's offspring; however, it is likely that Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia later became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice.
Education and poetry
Not much is known about Dante's education, and it is presumed he studied at home or in a chapter school attached to a church or monastery in Florence. It is known that he studied Tuscan poetry, at a time when the Sicilian School (Scuola poetica Siciliana), a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests brought him to discover the Occitan poetry of the troubadours and the Latin poetry of classical antiquity, including Cicero, Ovid, and especially Virgil.
Dante claims to have first met Beatrice Portinari, daughter of Folco Portinari, at age nine, and claims to have fallen in love "at first sight", apparently without even speaking to her. He saw her frequently after age 18, often exchanging greetings in the street, but he never knew her well; he effectively set the example for so-called courtly love, a phenomenon developed in French and Occitan poetry of the preceding centuries. Dante's experience of such love was typical, but his expression of it was unique. It was in the name of this love that Dante gave his imprint to the Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style, a term which Dante himself coined) and would join other contemporary poets and writers in exploring the themes of Love (Amore), which had never been so emphasized before. Love for Beatrice (as in a different manner Petrarch would show for his Laura) would apparently be the reason for poetry and for living, together with political passions. In many of his poems, she is depicted as semi-divine, watching over him constantly and providing spiritual instruction, sometimes harshly. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante sought refuge in Latin literature. The Convivio reveals that he had read Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and Cicero's De amicitia. He then dedicated himself to philosophical studies at religious schools like the Dominican one in Santa Maria Novella. He took part in the disputes that the two principal mendicant orders (Franciscan and Dominican) publicly or indirectly held in Florence, the former explaining the doctrine of the mystics and of Saint Bonaventure, the latter presenting Saint Thomas Aquinas' theories.
At 18, Dante met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia and soon after Brunetto Latini; together they became the leaders of the Dolce Stil Novo. Brunetto later received a special mention in the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XV, 28), for what he had taught Dante. Nor speaking less on that account, I go With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are His most known and most eminent companions. Some fifty poetical components by Dante are known (the so-called Rime, rhymes), others being included in the later Vita Nuova and Convivio. Other studies are reported, or deduced from Vita Nuova or the Comedy, regarding painting and music.
Florence and politics
Dante, like most Florentines of his day, was embroiled in the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict. He fought in the Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289), with the Florentine Guelphs against Arezzo Ghibellines, then in 1294 he was among the escorts of Charles Martel of Anjou (grandson of Charles I of Naples more commonly called Charles of Anjou) while he was in Florence. To further his political career, he became a pharmacist. He did not intend to actually practice as one, but a law issued in 1295 required that nobles who wanted public office had to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni delle Arti e dei Mestieri, so Dante obtained admission to the apothecaries' guild. This profession was not entirely inapt, since at that time books were sold from apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little, but he held various offices over a number of years in a city undergoing political unrest.
After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into two factions: the White Guelphs (Guelfi Bianchi) -- Dante's party, led by Vieri dei Cerchi -- and the Black Guelphs (Guelfi Neri), led by Corso Donati. Although initially the split was along family lines, ideological differences rose based on opposing views of the papal role in Florentine affairs, with the Blacks supporting the Pope and the Whites wanting more freedom from Rome. Initially the Whites were in power and expelled the Blacks. In response, Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of Florence. In 1301, Charles de Valois, brother of Philip the Fair king of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the city's government had treated the Pope's ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from papal influence. It was believed that Charles de Valois would eventually have received other unofficial instructions. So the council sent a delegation to Rome to ascertain the Pope's intentions. Dante was one of the delegates.
Exile and death
Boniface quickly dismissed the other delegates and asked Dante alone to remain in Rome. At the same time (November 1, 1301), Charles de Valois entered Florence with Black Guelphs, who in the next six days destroyed much of the city and killed many of their enemies. A new Black Guelph government was installed and Messer Cante de' Gabrielli da Gubbio was appointed Podestà of Florence. Dante was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine. The poet was still in Rome where the Pope had "suggested" he stay and was therefore considered 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. (The city council of Florence finally passed a motion rescinding Dante's sentence in June 2008.)
He took part in several attempts by the White Guelphs to regain power, but these failed due to treachery. Dante, bitter at the treatment he received from his enemies, also grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his erstwhile allies and vowed to become a party of one. Dante went to Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo I della Scala, then moved to Sarzana in Liguria. Later, he is supposed to have lived in Lucca with a lady called Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio, XXIV, 37). Some speculative sources claim he visited Paris between 1308 and 1310 and others, even less trustworthy, take him to Oxford: these claims, first occurring in Boccaccio's book on Dante several decades after his death, seem inspired by readers being impressed with the poet's wide learning and erudition. Evidently Dante's command of philosophy and his literary interests deepened in exile, when he was no longer busy with the day-to-day business of Florentine domestic politics, and this is evidenced in his prose writings in this period, but there is no real indication that he ever left Italy. Despite these years of disputed whereabouts, Dante's Immensa Dei dilectione testante to Henry VII of Luxembourg confirms his residence "beneath the springs of Arno, near Tuscany" in March of 1311. In 1310, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg marched 5,000 troops into Italy. Dante saw in him a new Charlemagne who would restore the office of the Holy Roman Emperor to its former glory and also re-take Florence from the Black Guelphs. He wrote to Henry and several Italian princes, demanding that they destroy the Black Guelphs. Mixing religion and private concerns, he invoked the worst anger of God against his city and suggested several particular targets that coincided with his personal enemies. It was during this time that he wrote De Monarchia, proposing a universal monarchy under Henry VII.
At some point during his exile, he conceived of the Comedy, but the date cannot be specified. The work is much more assured, and on a larger scale, than anything he had produced in Florence, and it is likely that he would have undertaken such a work only after he realized that his personal political ambitions, which had been central to him up to his banishment, would have to be put on hold for some time, possibly forever. It is also noticeable that Beatrice has returned to his imagination with renewed force and with a wider meaning than in the Vita Nuova; in Convivio (written c.1304-07) he had declared that the memory of this youthful romance belonged to the past. One of the earliest outside indications that the poem was under way is a notice by the law professor Francesco da Barberino, tucked into his I Documenti d'Amore (Lessons of Love) and written probably in 1314 or early 1315: speaking of Virgil, da Barberino notes in appreciative words that Dante followed the Roman classic in a poem called the Comedy, and that the setting of this poem (or part of it) was the underworld, that is, Hell. Unfortunately, the brief note gives no incontestable indication that he himself had seen or read even Inferno, or that this part had been published at the time, but it indicates that composition was well under way and that the sketching of the poem may likely have begun some years before. We know that Inferno had been published by 1317; this is established by quoted lines interspersed in the margins of contemporary dated records from Bologna, but there is no certainty whether the three parts of the poem were published each part in full or a few cantos at a time. Paradiso seems to have been published posthumously.
In Florence, Baldo d'Aguglione pardoned most of the White Guelphs in exile and allowed them to return; however, Dante had gone too far in his violent letters to Arrigo (Henry VII), and the sentence on him was not recalled.
In 1312, Henry assaulted Florence and defeated the Black Guelphs, but there is no evidence that Dante was involved. Some say he refused to participate in the assault on his city by a foreigner; others suggest that he had become unpopular with the White Guelphs too and that any trace of his passage had carefully been removed. In 1313, Henry VII died (from fever), and with him any hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande I della Scala allowed him to live in a certain security and, presumably, in a fair amount of prosperity. Cangrande was admitted to Dante's Paradise (Paradiso, XVII, 76).
In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile, including Dante. But Florence required that as well as paying a sum of money, these exiles would do public penance. Dante refused, preferring to remain in exile. When Uguccione defeated Florence, Dante's death sentence was commuted to house arrest, on condition that he go to Florence to swear that he would never enter the town again. Dante refused to go. His death sentence was confirmed and extended to his sons. Dante still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honorable terms. For Dante, exile was nearly a form of death, stripping him of much of his identity and his heritage. He addresses the pain of exile in Paradiso, XVII (55-60), where Cacciaguida, his great-great-grandfather, warns him what to expect:
... Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta ... You shall leave everything you love most: più caramente; e questo è quello strale this is the arrow that the bow of exile che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta. shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste Tu proverai sì come sa di sale of others' bread, how salty it is, and know lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle how hard a path it is for one who goes lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale ... ascending and descending others' stairs
As for the hope of returning to Florence, he describes it as if he had already accepted its impossibility, (Paradiso, XXV, 1–9):
Se mai continga che 'l poema sacro If it ever come to pass that the sacred poem al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra, to which both heaven and earth have set their hand sì che m'ha fatto per molti anni macro, so as to have made me lean for many years vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra should overcome the cruelty that bars me del bello ovile ov'io dormi' agnello, from the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb, nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra; an enemy to the wolves that make war on it, con altra voce omai, con altro vello with another voice now and other fleece ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte I shall return a poet and at the font del mio battesmo prenderò 'l cappello ... of my baptism take the laurel crown
Prince Guido Novello da Polenta invited him to Ravenna in 1318, and he accepted. He finished the Paradiso, and died in 1321 (at the age of 56) while returning to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission to Venice, possibly of malaria contracted there. Dante was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore (later called San Francesco). Bernardo Bembo, praetor of Venice in 1483, took care of his remains by building a better tomb.
On the grave, some verses of Bernardo Canaccio, a friend of Dante, dedicated to Florence:
parvi Florentia mater amoris - "Florence, mother of little love"
The first formal biography of Dante was the Vita di Dante (also known as Trattatello in laude di Dante) written after 1348 by Giovanni Boccaccio; several statements and episodes of it are seen as unreliable by modern research. However, an earlier account of Dante's life and works had been included in the Nuova Cronica of the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani.
Eventually, Florence came to regret Dante's exile, and made repeated requests for the return of his remains. The custodians of the body at Ravenna refused to comply, at one point going so far as to conceal the bones in a false wall of the monastery. Nevertheless, in 1829, a tomb was built for him in Florence in the basilica of Santa Croce. That tomb has been empty ever since, with Dante's body remaining in Ravenna, far from the land he loved so dearly. The front of his tomb in Florence reads Onorate l'altissimo poeta—which roughly translates as "Honour the most exalted poet". The phrase is a quote from the fourth canto of the Inferno, depicting Virgil's welcome as he returns among the great ancient poets spending eternity in Limbo. The continuation of the line, L'ombra sua torna, ch'era dipartita ("his spirit, which had left us, returns"), is poignantly absent from the empty tomb.
In 2007, a reconstruction of Dante's face was completed in a collaborative project. Artists from Pisa University and engineers at the University of Bologna at Forli completed the revealing model, which indicated that Dante's features were somewhat different than was once thought.
The Divine Comedy describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the subject of his love and of another of his works, La Vita Nuova. While the vision of Hell, the Inferno, is vivid for modern readers, the theological niceties presented in the other books require a certain amount of patience and knowledge to appreciate. Purgatorio, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey (e.g., when Dante looks into the face of God: "all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa"—"at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe," Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).
By its serious purpose, its literary stature and the range—both stylistically and in subject matter—of its content, the Comedy soon became a cornerstone in the evolution of Italian as an established literary language. Dante was more aware than most earlier Italian writers of the variety of Italian dialects and of the need to create a literature beyond the limits of Latin writing at the time, and a unified literary language; in that sense he is a forerunner of the renaissance with its effort to create vernacular literature in competition with earlier classical writers. Dante's in-depth knowledge (within the realms of the time) of Roman antiquity and his evident admiration for some aspects of pagan Rome also point forward to the 15th century. Ironically, while he was widely honoured in the centuries after his death, the Comedy slipped out of fashion among men of letters: too medieval, too rough and tragical and not stylistically refined in the respects that the high and late renaissance came to demand of literature.
He wrote the Comedy in a language he called "Italian", in some sense an amalgamated literary language mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, with some elements of Latin and of the other regional dialects. The aim was to deliberately reach a readership throughout Italy, both laymen, clergymen and other poets. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is sometimes nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first (among others such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to break free from standards of publishing in only Latin (the language of liturgy, history, and scholarship in general, but often also of lyric poetry). This break set a precedent and allowed more literature to be published for a wider audience—setting the stage for greater levels of literacy in the future. However, unlike Boccaccio, Milton or Ariosto, Dante didn't really become an author read all over Europe until the romantic era. To the romantics, Dante, like Homer and Shakespeare, was a prime example of the "original genius" who sets his own rules, creates persons of overpowering stature and depth and goes far beyond any imitation of the patterns of earlier masters and who, in turn, cannot really be imitated. Throughout the 19th century, Dante's reputation grew and solidified, and by the time of the 1865 jubilee, he had become solidly established as one of the greatest literary icons of the Western world.
Readers often cannot understand how such a serious work may be called a "comedy". In Dante's time, all serious scholarly works were written in Latin (a tradition that would persist for several hundred years more, until the waning years of the Enlightenment) and works written in any other language were assumed to be more trivial in nature. Furthermore, the word "comedy", in the classical sense, refers to works which reflect belief in an ordered universe, in which events not only tended towards a happy or "amusing" ending, but an ending influenced by a Providential will that orders all things to an ultimate good. By this meaning of the word, as Dante himself wrote in a letter to Cangrande I della Scala, the progression of the pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise is the paradigmatic expression of comedy, since the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God.
Dante's other works include the Convivio ("The Banquet") a collection of his longest poems with an (unfinished) allegorical commentary; Monarchia, a summary treatise of political philosophy in Latin, which was condemned and burned after Dante's death by the Papal Legate Bertrando del Poggetto, which argues for the necessity of a universal or global monarchy in order to establish universal peace in this life, and this monarchy's relationship to the Roman Catholic Church as guide to eternal peace; De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), on vernacular literature, partly inspired by the Razos de trobar of Raimon Vidal de Bezaudun; and, La Vita Nuova ("The New Life"), the story of his love for Beatrice Portinari, who also served as the ultimate symbol of salvation in the Comedy. The Vita Nuova contains many of Dante's love poems in Tuscan, which was not unprecedented; the vernacular had been regularly used for lyric works before, during all the thirteenth century. One of the most famous poems is Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare, which many Italians can recite by heart. However, Dante's commentary on his own work is also in the vernacular—both in the Vita Nuova and in the Convivio—instead of the Latin that was almost universally used. References to Divina Commedia are in the format (book, canto, verse), e.g., (Inferno, XV, 76).
Images and media from Commons on Dante
Dante Alighieri's Timeline
Firenze, Toscana, Italia
September 14, 1321
Ravenna, Emilia Romagna, Italia