The Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote "The Divine Comedy," the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature written in a modern European vernacular.
Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city-states, particularly Florence, which was torn between rival factions. Spiritually and culturally too, there were signs of change. With the diffusion of Aristotle's physical and metaphysical works, there came the need for harmonizing his philosophy with the truth of Christianity, and Dante's mind was attracted to philosophical speculation. In Italy, Giotto, who had freed himself from the Byzantine tradition, was reshaping the art of painting, while the Tuscan poets were beginning to experiment with new forms of expression. Dante may be considered the greatest and last medieval poet, at least in Italy, where barely a generation later the first humanists were to spring up.
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 and was noble also by virtue of honors bestowed on it later. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade. As was usual for the minor nobility, Dante's family was Guelph, in opposition to the Ghibelline party of the feudal nobility which strove to dominate the communes under the protection of the emperor.
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 Sta Croce and the Dominican school of S. Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of Thomistic doctrine 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.
A famous portrait of the young Dante done by Giotto hangs in the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence. We also have the following description of him left us by the author Giovanni Boccaccio: "Our poet was of medium height, and his face was long and his nose aquiline and his jaws were big, and his lower lip stood out in such a way that it somewhat protruded beyond the upper one; his shoulders were somewhat curved, and his eyes large rather than small and of brown color, and his hair and beard were curled and black, and he was always melancholy and pensive."
Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but before 1283 his father died, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father's previous arrangements, he married the gentlewoman Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.
Dante began early in life to compose poetry, an art, he tells us, which he taught himself as a young man (Vita nuova, III, 9). Through his love lyrics he became known to other poets of Florence, 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. And 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.
During his youth Dante had known a young and noble Florentine woman whose grace and beauty so impressed him that in his poetry she became the idealized Beatrice, the "bringer of blessings," who seemed "a creature come from heaven to earth, A miracle manifest in reality" (Vita nuova, XXVI). She 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 in their ninth year; he had named her in a ballad among the 60 fairest women of Florence. But it was only later that Beatrice became the guide of his thoughts and emotions "toward that ideal perfection which is the goal of every noble mind," and the praise of her virtue and grace became the subject of his poetry.
When the young Beatrice died on June 8, 1290, Dante was overcome with grief but found consolation in thoughts of her glory in heaven. Although another woman succeeded briefly in winning Dante's love through her compassion, the memory of Beatrice soon aroused in him feelings of remorse and renewed his fidelity to her. He was prompted to gather from among all his poems those which 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 Vita nuova (New Life), in which he copied from his "book of memory" only those past experiences belonging to his "new life"—a life made new through Beatrice. It follows Dante's own youthful life through three movements or stages in love, in which Beatrice's religious and spiritual significance becomes increasingly clear. At the same time it traces his poetic development from an early phase reminiscent of the Cavalcantian manner to a foreshadowing of The Divine Comedy. In the last prose chapter, which tells of a "miraculous vision," the poet speaks of the major work that he intends to write and the important role Beatrice will have in it: "If it be the wish of Him in whom all things flourish that my life continue for a few years, I hope to write of her that which has never been written of any other lady."
The Vita nuova, written between 1292 and 1294, is one of the first important examples of Italian literary prose. Its 31 poems, most of them sonnets symmetrically grouped around three canzoni, are only a small selection of Dante's lyric production. He wrote many other lyrics inspired by Beatrice which are not included in the Vita nuova; in addition there are verses written to other women and poems composed at different times in his life, representing a variety of forms and stylistic experiences.
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 and deeply concerned about the state of Europe as a whole. In 1289 he had fought with the Florentine cavalry at the battle of Campaldino. In 1295 he inscribed himself in the guild of physicians and pharmacists (membership in a guild being a precondition for holding public office in Florence). He became a member of the people's council and served in various other capacities. For 2 months in 1300 he was one of the six priors of Florence, and in 1301 he was a member of the Council of the One Hundred.
In October 1301 Dante was sent in a delegation from the commune to Pope Boniface VIII, whose policies he openly opposed as constituting a threat to Florentine independence. During his absence the Blacks (one of the two opposing factions within the Guelph party) gained control of Florence. In the resulting banishment of the Whites, Dante was sentenced to exile in absentia (January 1302). Despite various attempts to regain admission to Florence—at first in an alliance of other exiles whose company he soon abandoned and later through his writing—he was never to enter his native city again.
Dante led the life of an exile, taking refuge first with Bartolommeo della Scala in Verona, and after a time of travel—to Bologna, through northern Italy, possibly also to Paris between 1307 and 1309—with Can Grande della Scala in Verona (1314). During this time his highest hopes were placed in Emperor Henry VII, who 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.
During these years of wandering Dante's studies were not interrupted. Indeed, he had hoped that in acquiring fame as a poet and philosopher he might also regain the favor of his fellow citizens. His study of Boethius and Cicero in Florence had already widened his philosophical horizons. After 1290 he had turned to the study of philosophy with such fervor that "in a short time, perhaps 30 months" he had begun "to be so keenly aware of her sweetness that the love of her drove away and destroyed every other thought." He read so much, it seems, that his eyes were weakened.
Two uncompleted treatises, De vulgari eloquentia (1303-1304) and the Convivio (1304-1307), belong to the early period of exile. At the same time, about 1306, he probably began to compose The Divine Comedy.
In De vulgari eloquentia, a theoretical treatise in Latin on the Italian vernacular, Dante intended to treat of all aspects of the spoken language, from the highest poetic expression to the most humble familiar speech. The first book is devoted to a discussion of dialects and the principles of poetic composition in the vulgar tongue; the second book treats specifically of the "illustrious" vulgar tongue used by certain excellent poets and declares that this noble form of expression is suitable only for the most elevated subjects, such as love, virtue, and war, and must be used in the form of the canzone.
The Convivio was intended to consist of 15 chapters: an introduction and 14 canzoni, with prose commentaries in Italian; but only 4 chapters were completed. The canzoni, which are the "meat" of the philosophical banquet while the prose commentaries are the "bread," appear to be written to a beautiful woman. But the prose commentaries interpret these poems as an allegorical exaltation of philosophy, inspired by the love of wisdom. Dante wished to glorify philosophy as the "mistress of his mind" and to treat subjects of moral philosophy, such as love and virtue. The Convivio is in a sense a connecting link between the Vita nuova and The Divine Comedy. Thus in the latter work reason in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom becomes man's sole guide on earth, except for the intervention of Divine Grace, in his striving for virtue and God. In the Convivio Dante also defends the use of the vernacular as a suitable medium for ethical and scientific subjects, as well as amorous ones.
The Latin treatise De monarchia, of uncertain date but possibly attributable to the time of Henry VII's descent into Italy (1310-1313), is a statement of Dante's political theories. At the same time it is intended as a practical guide toward the restoration of peace in Europe under a temporal monarch in Rome, whose authority proceeds directly from God.
During his exile Dante also wrote various Latin epistles and letters of political nature to Italian prices and cardinals. Belonging to a late period are two Latin eclogues and the scientific essay Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320). Il fiore, a long sonnet sequence, is of doubtful attribution.
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 (possibly also his wife), Dante was greatly esteemed and spent a happy and peaceful period until his death on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321.
The Divine Comedy
The original title of Dante's masterpiece, which he completed shortly before his death, was Commedia; the epithet Divina was added by posterity. The purpose of this work, as Dante writes in his letter to Can Grande, is "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity." The Commedia is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven). The second and third sections contain 33 cantos apiece; the Inferno has 34, since its opening canto is an introduction to the entire work. The measure throughout the poem is terza rima, consisting of lines in sets of 3, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on.
The main action of the literal narrative centers on Dante's journey to God through the agency of Beatrice; the moral or allegorical meaning that Dante wishes the reader to keep in mind is that God will do for everyman what he has done for one man, if everyman is willing to make this journey. Dante constructs an allegory of a double journey: his experience in the supernatural world points to the journey of everyman through this life. The poet finds himself in a dark wood (sin); he tries to escape by climbing a mountain illuminated by the sun (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 (human reason) appears, sent to his 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 pilgrim learns all there is to know about sin and confronts the very foundation of sin, which is pride, personified in Lucifer frozen at the very center of the universe. Only now is he spiritually prepared to begin his ascent through the realm of purification.
The mountain of the Purgatorio is a place of repentance, regeneration, and conversion. The penitents endure severe punishments, but all are pilgrims directed to God, in an atmosphere of love, hope, and an eager willingness in suffering. On the mountain's summit Beatrice (divine revelation) comes to take Virgil's place as Dante's guide—for the final ascent to God, human reason is insufficient.
The Paradiso depicts souls contemplating God; they are in a state of perfect happiness in the knowledge of His divine truths. The dominant image in this realm is light. God is light, and the pilgrim's goal from the start was to reach the light. His spiritual growth toward the attainment of this end is the main theme of the entire poem.
Further Reading on Dante Alighieri
For an understanding of how little scholars know of Dante's life, see Michele Barbi, Life of Dante, edited and translated by Paul Ruggiers (1954). Recommended as important guides to the study of Dante are Charles A. Dinsmore, Aids to the Study of Dante (1903); Umberto Cosmo, A Handbook to Dante Studies (trans. 1947); and Thornes G. Bergin, Dante (1965). A variety of critical approaches to Dante are offered in Bernard Stambler, Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy (1957); Charles S. Singleton, Dante Studies I and II (1958); Irma Brandeis, The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante's Comedy (1960); Mark Musa, Essays on Dante (1964); Jefferson B. Fletcher, Dante (1965); and Francis Fergusson, Dante (1966).