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Biography of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Dante Alighieri Dante Alighieri

Dante is one of the greatest poets in the Italian language; with the comic story-teller Boccaccio and the poet Petrarch, he forms the classic trio of Italian authors. Dante Alighieri was born in the city-state Florence in 1265. He first saw the woman, or rather the child, who was to become the poetic love of his life when he was almost nine years old and she was some months younger. In fact, Beatrice married another man, Simone di' Bardi, and died when Dante was 25, so their relationship existed almost entirely in Dante's imagination, but she nonetheless plays an extremely important role in his poetry. Dante attributed all the heavenly virtues to her soul and imagined, in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy, that she was his guardian angel who alternately berated and encouraged him on his search for salvation.

Politics as well as love deeply influenced Dante's literary and emotional life. Renaissance Florence was a thriving, but not a peaceful city: different opposing factions continually struggled for dominance there. The Guelfs and the Ghibellines were the two major factions, and in fact that division was important in all of Italy and other countries as well. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor were political rivals for much of this time period, and in general the Guelfs were in favor of the Pope, while the Ghibellines supported Imperial power. By 1289 in the battle of Campaldino the Ghibellines largely disappeared from Florence. Peace, however, did not insue. Instead, the Guelf party divided between the Whites and the Blacks (Dante was a White Guelf). The Whites were more opposed to Papal power than the Blacks, and tended to favor the emperor, so in fact the preoccupations of the White Guelfs were much like those of the defeated Ghibellines. In this divisive atmosphere Dante rose to a position of leadership. in 1302, while he was in Rome on a diplomatic mission to the Pope, the Blacks in Florence seized power with the help of the French (and pro-Pope) Charles of Valois. The Blacks exiled Dante, confiscating his goods and condemning him to be burned if he should return to Florence.

Dante never returned to Florence. He wandered from city to city, depending on noble patrons there. Between 1302 and 1304 some attempts were made by the exiled Whites to retrieve their position in Florence, but none of these succeeded and Dante contented himself with hoping for the appearance of a new powerful Holy Roman Emperor who would unite the country and banish strife. Henry VII was elected Emperor in 1308, and indeed laid seige to Florence in 1312, but was defeated, and he died a year later, destroying Dante's hopes. Dante passed from court to court, writing passionate political and moral epistles and finishing his Divine Comedy, which contains the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He finally died in Ravenna in 1321.

As can be seen, little is known about the details of Dante's life other than what he tells us in his works. The portrait emerges of a bitter and passionate man who used prophetic poetry to warn Florentines of the evils which awaited them for their misdeeds and the confusion and corruption of their government.

Although his political aims were doomed to failure, Dante achieved great victories in literature. Notably, he was one of the first authors to write in the vernacular Tuscan, rather than Latin, and thus had a defining effect on what Italian is today: before his work, Italian was usually only spoken, and hence was divided into many different dialects, without a coherent literary language. Dante used the melodic vowel word-endings of many Italian words in the rhyme scheme "terza rime," in which first and the third lines of each triplet end in the same vowel sound.

Study Guides on Works by Dante Alighieri