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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)


The greatest Italian poet and one of the most important writers of European literature. Dante is best known for the epic poem Commedia, c.1310-14, later named La Divina Commedia. It has profoundly affected not only the religious imagination but all subsequent allegorical creation of imaginary worlds in literature. Dante spent much of his life traveling from one city to another. This had perhaps more to do with the restless times than his wandering character or persistent creditors. However, his Commedia can also be called a spiritual travel book.

"It were a shameful thing if one should rhyme under the semblance of metaphor or rhetorical similitude, and afterwards, being questioned thereof, should be unable to rid his words of such semblance, unto their right understanding." (in Vita Nuova, c.1293)

Dante Alighieri was born into a Florentine family of noble ancestry. Originally he was called Durante after his mother's father, but the name was shortened into Dante. His great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida had participated in the Second Crusade. Before dying in a battle, he been knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III. Cacciaguida appears in Commedia. His spirit greets Dante in Canto XV of the Paradiso with the words: "O blood of mine! O overbrimming grace of God! / For whom was ever heaven’s gate / Thrown open twice, as it has been for you?" 

Little is known about Dante's childhood, but the city where he spent the first 38 years of his life was an important cultural and political center. His mother, called Bella degli Abati, came from a family of wealthy landowners. She died when Dante was seven years old. Dante's father, Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighiero (Alighiero II), made his living by money-lending and renting of property. After the loss of his wife he remarried, but died in the early 1280s, before the future poet reached manhood. Brunetto Latini, a man of letters and an influential politician, became a kind of father figure for Dante, but later in Commedia Brunetto was placed in Hell, into the seventh circle, among those who were guilty of "violence against nature" – sodomy. Brunetto's poem Tesoretto, about the narrator's journey into the next world, inspired Dante's own work. 

Dante received a thorough education in both classical and Christian literature. At the age of 11 he was promised to his future wife, the 10-year-old Gemma Donati. Dante had already fallen in love with another girl, Folco Portinari's daughter Bici, whom he called Beatrice. She was 9 years old.

Years later Dante met Beatrice again; she spoke with him on the street in Florence. By that time, he had begun to write verse, and although he composed several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems. One of his early sonnets Dante sent to the poet Guido Cavalcanti, which started their friendship. Dante also dedicated his first book to Cavalcanti. This work, La Vita Nuova (1292), which celebrated Dante's love for Beatrice, had its roots in the medieval concept of "courtly love" and the idealization of women. According to another theory, Beatrice was actually a symbol of Santa Sapienza, which united secret societies of the day. Harold Bloom in The Western Canon (1994) sees Beatrice as Dante's greatest muse, his invention, who saved him "by giving him his greatest image for poetry, and he saved her from oblivion, little as she may have wanted such salvation."

Dante married in 1285 Gemma Donati but his ideal lady and inspiration for his poetry was Beatrice. She married Simone de' Bardi in 1287; Beatrice was his second wife. They moved to Oltrano. When Dante was asked why he still continued unhappily to love her, he answered: "Ladies, the end of my love was indeed the greeting of this lady, of whom you are perhaps thinking, and in that greeting lay my beatitude, for it was the end of all my desires. But because it pleased her to deny it to me, my Lord Love in his mercy has placed all my beatitude in that which cannot fail me." Beatrice died in June 1290, at the age of 24. Depressed with sorrow, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. From Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae and the writings of Thomas Aquinas he found much consolation and intellectual stimulation.

In 1289 in the Florentine army Dante participated in a battle against the Arentines. He also entered politics and took the side of the White (Bianchi) Guelphs, one of the rival factions within the Guelph party. In 1295 he joined the Guild of member Apothecaries, to which philosophers could belong, and which opened for him the doors to public office. Moreover, apothecaries sold books in their shops. Dante served the commune in various councils and was ambassador to San Gimignano in 1300 and then to Rome. In June 1300 he was elected a prior, and the following year he was appointed superintendent of roads and road repair.

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

When the Black (Neri) Guelphs, who had Pope Bonicafe VIII's support (he wanted to acquire land south of Siena), ascended to power, Dante was exiled. The White Guelphs were condemned to death by burning should they ever be caught again in Florence. They soon made an alliance with the Ghibelline party and attempted several unsuccessful attacks on Florence. The White Guelphs' hopes to reunite Germany and Italy ended with the death (1313) of the emperor Henry VII. On November 1, 1301, Charles of Valois entered Florence with two thousand horsemen and a new set of priors was elected. Dante was charged with financial corruption in January 1302 and some months later in his absence he was sentenced to death by burning. "The blame will fall upon the injured side / As always," Dante wrote later. Gemma Donati, by whom Dante had two sons and one or two daughters, did not accompany the poet into exile. In Commedia Dante repeatedly condemns the Popes for their involvement in politics. Pope Boniface VIII had invited Charles of Valois to Italy. Dante argued in Monarchia, that there should be one supreme ruler, the Emperor, not the Pope, as during the reign of Augustus.

After 1302 Dante never saw his home town again, but found shelter in various Italian cities and with such rulers as Ordelaffi of Forli, the Scaligeri of Verona, and the Malaspina of Lunigiana. Dante lived his remaining years in the courts of the northern Italy princes. During his exile, he started to write his Commedia under the patronage of the Ghibelline leaders. While in Verona, he was given an apartment in Can Grande della Scala's palace, the Scaligeri palazzo, where he occasionally dined at the prince's own table.

About 1320 Dante made his final home in Ravenna. During a conflict between Venice and Ravenna, he served as a peace negotiator. On the return journey from Venice, he contracted malaria. Dante died on the night of September 13-14, 1321, at the age of 56. His body was brought to the church of San Francisco. Shortly after he died, Dante was accused of Averroism and his book, De Monarchia, was burned by the order of Pope John XXII. Franciscan monks hid Dante's remains, when Pope Leo X decided in 1519 to deliver them in Florence to Michelangelo, who planned to construct a glorious tomb for the poet. Again in 1677 Dante's remains were moved, and in 1865 construction workers rediscovered them accidentally.

"How bitter another's bread is, thou shalt know
By tasting it; and how hard to the feet
Another's stairs are, up and down to go."

(in The Divine Comedy)

Dante's years of exile 1301- 1321 were productive. The ambitious De Vulgari eloquentia  (1304-07), a treatise on his native language, was written in Latin. Dante urged that the courtly Italian, used for amatory lyrics, be enriched with the best from every spoken dialect and established as a serious literary language. Thus the created language would be a way to unify the separated Italian territories. This treatise, which ends abruptly after chapter 14 of book 2, was one of the first medieval investigations of political philosophy, bringing forth the idea for a world government. Il Convivio, a collection of verse written between 1306 and 1308, was planned as a series of 14 treatises. Quaestio de aqua et terra was a scholastic treatise on physics. Thirteen Latin Epistles included both personal and political letters.

Commedia was completed just before the poet's death. He probably started to write it in 1307. The Purgatorio was composed in Verona, where he stayed more or less continuously from late 1312 to mid-1318. In Ravenna he wrote the final phases of the Paradiso. By the time the first two parts of the Comedy had been sent in circulation, Dante was being acclaimed through much of Tuscany as its greatest poet. After Dante's death his son Pietro, who became a judge, whote a Latin commentary on his father's work.

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) delivered the first public lectures of the "divino poeta" and compiled in the early 1350s the first biography of Dante. His lecture notes, known as Esposizioni sopra la Comedia de Dante, have survived. Describing his apprearance he wrote: "Our poet was of middle height; his face was long, his nose was aquiline, his jaw large, and his under lip protruding somewhat beyond the upper. His eyes rather large than small; his hair and beard thick, crisp, and black, and his countenance sad and pensive. His gait was grave and gentlemanlike, and his bearing, in public or private, wonderfully composed and polished. In meat and drink he was most temperate." Boccaccio tells a story, that after the death of Dante, the final thirteen cantos of the Comedy could not be found, until the poet's son Jacopo saw a dream, in which he was led to his father's old bedroom. The missing cantos were hidden inside the wall.

When a splendid edition of Dante's poem was published in 1555, the adjective "divine" was applied to the poem's title, and thus the work, originally simply named Commedia, became La Divina Commedia. It is a narrative poem in terza rima containing 14 233 lines organized into 100 chapters, or cantos, approximately 142 lines each. The structure of the work is widely based on the numbers 1, 3 and 9. There are three canticles, or main sections of the poem. Each canticle contains 33 cantos, but Inferno has one additional piece, the introductory first canto. Moreover, Dante's Inferno is divided into nine circles. Purgatory contains seven terraces, plus an Ante-Purgatory and the Earthy Paradise. Beatrice is mentioned by name 63 times (6+3=9); she appears in the sixty-fourth stanza (6+4=10), which has 145 lines (1+4+5=10), and announces her identity in line 73 (7+3=10).

Narrated in the first person, Commedia tells of the poet's journey through the realm of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark," the opening reads. The beginning is set in the real world, on Good Friday in the year 1300. The Roman poet Virgil (Vergilius) serves as the guide through the Inferno and Purgatorio, but being a pagan, he cannot go any further. On his way Dante encounters figures from the Who Was Who in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Beatrice, the personification of pure love, has been sent to rescue him and she finally leads Dante to Paradise. There he is then able to gaze upon the supreme radiance of God. Dante ends his pilgrimage into a cosmic vision of "'the Love which moves the sun and the other stars." The word "Christ" is not rhymed with any other word except itself.

The dual allegory of Commedia – the progress of the soul toward Heaven, and the anguish of humankind on Earth – would later be echoed by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84). Dante's idea was to make the world of his poem a mirror of the world of the Christian God of his era. He thought that Thomas Aquinas had effected the final reconciliation between Aristotle's philosophy and Christian faith. Commedia was Dante's tribute to this system.

Commedia's most popular translation into English was made by Henry Cary (1772-1884), who issued The Inferno first, and later the complete work. A separate translation of the first canticle by Warwick Chipman (1961) is considered closer to the style and approach of Dante. The Penguin Classics version by Dorothy L. Sayers, which has been widely used, was completed after her death by Barbara Reynolds. – Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) illustrated text of Inferno (1861) with 76 plates and published at his own expense in 1861, is among the most famous editions. It sold out in a few weeks, although the published Louis Hachette believed it would not be a commercially viable venture. Doré completed his illustrations for The Divine Comedy with 60 plates in Purgatory and Paradise (1868).

For further reading: Critical Companion to Dante: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by Jay Ruud (2008); Dante by R.W.B. Lewis (2001); Dante's Aesthetics of Being by Warren Ginsberg (1999); Dante and the Victorians by Alice Milbank (1999); Dante and the Knot of Body and Soul by Marianne Shapiro (1998); Dante, ed. Jeremy Tanbling (1998); Dante Alighieri by Ricardo Quinones (1998); Dante's Modern Afterlife, ed. Nick Havely (1996); Dante Now by Theodore J. Cachey (1996); Dante's Interpretive Journey by William France (1996); Dante's Inferno, ed. Harold Bloom (1996); Dante by Michael Caesar (1995); Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge by Giuseppe Mazzotta (1993); Vita di Dante by Giorgio Petrocchi (1983); Dante the Maker by William Anderson (1980); Vita di Dante by Piero Bargellini (1964); Aids to the Study of Dante by Charles Allen Disnmore (1903) - Museums: Casa di Dante, Via San Margheri, Florence - site of Dantes birth, reconstructed as a Dante museum in 1895. Baptistery of San Giovanni, Piazza San Giovanni, Florence - inspiration for Dante's poetry and where he was baptized.  Note: The Russian Nobel writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used Dante's epic poem in his novel The First Circle (1968). The intellectuals of the novel are like sages of the Commedia, they are not consigned to Hell but God cannot admit them to Paradise.  See also: Geoffrey Chaucer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Isaiah Berlin, Honoré de Balzac

Selected works:

  • La Vita Nuova, c.1293 (ed. Michele Barbi, in Opere, 1960)
    - The New Life (tr. Charles Eliot Norton, 1859; D.G. Rossetti, in The Early Italian Poets, 1861) / Vita Nuova (tr. Mark Musa, 1957, rev. ed., 1973; Barbara Reynolds, 1969; Dino S. Cervigni & Edward Vasta, 1995) / The New Life = La Vita Nuova (tr. Stanley Appelbaum, 2006)
    - Uusi elämä (suomentanut Tyyni Haapanen-Tallgren, 1920)
  • Il Convivio, 1307 (unfinished)
    - Convivio (tr. P.H. Wicksteed, 1904; W.W. Jackson, 1909) / The Banquet (tr. Richard H. Lansing, 1990; Elizabeth Price Sayer, 2007)
  • De vulgari eloquentia, 1304-07 (ed. A. Marigo, revised by P.G. Ricci, 1957)
    - in The Latin Works (tr.  A.G. Ferrers Howell and P.H. Wicksteed, 1904) / On Eloquence in the Vernacular (in Literay Criticism and Theory, ed. R.C. Davis and L. Finke, 1989) / De vulgari eloquentia (ed. and tr. Steven Botterill, 1996)
  • La Divina Commedia, c.1310-14 (Inferno finished before 1316, Purgatorio before 1320, Paradiso before 1321)
    - The Divine Comedy (translated by Henry Longfellow, 1865-1867; Charles Eliot Norton, 1891-92; Laurence Binyon, 1933-46; L.G. White, 1948; Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, 1949-1962; John Ciardi, 1954-1970; Charles Singleton, 6 vols., 1970-75; Allen Mandelbaum, 3 vols., 1982; Mark Musa, 1995; Peter Dale, 1996; Elio Zapulla, 1998; Clive James, 2013; translated into prose by J. Carlyle, T. Okey, and P. Wicksteed, 3 vols., 1899-1901; C.H. Sisson, 1980, Robert Durling, 1996)
    - Jumalainen näytelmä (suom. Eino Leino 1912-14; Elina Vaara, 1963)
    - film: Dante's Inferno (1935), dir. Harry Lachman, starring Spencer Tracy, Claire Trevor, sets by Willy Pogany, inspired by Gustave Doré
  • De Monarchia, c.1313 (ed. E. Rostagno, in Opere, 1960)
    - Concerning Monarchy (tr. Aurelia Henry, 1904) / Monarchy and Three Political Letters (tr. Donald Nicholl and Colin Hardie, 1954) / Monarchy (ed. and tr. Prue Shaw, 1996) / Dante's Monarchia (tr. Richard Kay, 1998) / The Monarchia Controversy (tr. Anthony K. Cassell, 2004)
  • Eclogues, 1319-20 (after Virgil's Eclogues)
    - Dante's Eclogues (tr. Wilmon Brewer, 1927)
  • Quaestio de aqua et terra, 1320 (ed. E. Pistelli, in Opere, 1960)
    - A Translation of the Quaestio de Aqua Et Terra (tr. Alain Campbell White, 1903) / Quaestio de Aqua et Terra (ed. and tr. Charles Lancelot Shadwell, 1909)
  • The Oxford Dante, 1894 (edited by Edward Moore, fourth edition 1924)
  • The Latin Works, 1904 (tr. A.G. Ferrers Howell and P.H. Wicksteed)
  • Epistolae: The Letters, 1920 (edited and translated by Paget Toynbee; rev. ed., C.G. Hadrie, 1966)
  • Le Opere di Dante: testo critico della Società dantesca italiana, 1921-22 (2 vols., ed. Michele Barbi and others; 2nd ed., 1960)
  • Rime, 1943 (ed. Daniele Mattalia; Gianfranco Contini in 1946; Michele Barbi and Francesco Maggini in 1956)
  • The Portable Dante, 1947 (ed. Paolo Milano)
  • Letters, 1966 (2d ed., translated and edited by Paget Toynbee)
  • Commedia, 1966-67 (4 vols., edited Giorgio Petrocchi)
  • Dante's Lyric Poetry, 1967 (2 vols.)
  • Lyric Poetry, 1967 (2 vols., edited by Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde)
  • The Portable Dante, 1969 (rev. ed., edited and with an introd. by Paolo Milano)
  • Opere minori di Dante Alighieri, 1983-86 (2 vols., ed. Giorgio Bárberi Squarotti et al.)
  • The Portable Dante, 1995 (edited and translated by Mark Musa)
  • The Complete Lyric Poems of Dante Alighieri, 1997 (edited and translated by Marc Cirigliano)
  • Opere, 2011- (edited by Marco Santagata)

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