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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

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.

Lyric Poetry

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.

Political Activities

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.

Minor Works

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

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). □

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Alighieri, Dante (1265–1321)

Alighieri, Dante (12651321)

Medieval poet who set his three-part work The Divine Comedy in Italian, breaking with the tradition of writing serious literary works in Latin, and who is considered the greatest poet of the Italian language. Born in Florence, Italy, he was a member of the minor aristocracy who traced their lineage to celebrated Crusaders and to the nobility of ancient Rome. Dante's clan sided with the Guelph faction, which supported the popes in their struggles with the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante was educated in monastic schools in Florence and also privately with Brunetto Latini, a renowned teacher of rhetoric. In 1289, he took part in the battle of Campoldino in

which the Florentine Guelphs soundly defeated their rivals in the Ghibelline faction.

Dante was a devoted student of the ancient Roman poet Virgil as well as Cicero, a famous Roman politician and orator. Drawn to poetry, he studied the ancient Latin poets as well as the songs of the troubadours of Provence (southern France). He began composing love sonnets as a young man. An encounter with a young noblewoman, Beatrice Portinari, who struck him as an ideal of beauty and grace, inspired many of his poems. Her death at an early age in 1290 moved him to collect his poetry in Vita Nuova, or New Life. The poems and prose passages of this book, which was completed by 1294, were written in Italian, and not Latin, and represent one of the earliest efforts by any Italian writer to express himself in the vernacular (everyday language) of his homeland.

Dante involved himself in the civil struggles that were then dividing Florence into two hostile camps. He joined the doctors and apothecaries guilds (guild membership was required for anyone who sought high public office), and a few years following the appearance of Vita Nuova, he became a member of the city council of Florence. When he traveled to Rome as Florentine envoy to Pope Boniface VIII in 1301, his opponents in the Guelph party who remained behind had him banished from the city, seized his property, and threatened him with execution should he ever return. For the remaining twenty years of his life, Dante lived in exile, wandering from town to town and never receiving a pardon from the city of Florence that would allow him to return. He lived in Verona, Bologna, and Paris, taking refuge in the homes of patrons and nobles who either admired his works or who shared his political beliefs. He became a supporter of Emperor Henry VII in the latter's drive to reunite the Italian city-states. In 1310 an invasion of Italy by Henry temporarily gave Dante hope for a return to Florence. These hopes were ended with the death of the emperor while on campaign in Tuscany in 1313. Dante's letters to Henry angered the Florentine leaders further; when the city offered him a pardon with certain strict conditions, Dante refused the offer and was afterward condemned to death.

While in exile, Dante wrote De Vulgarii Eloquentia, a treatise on Italian as a literary language, and On Monarchy, a work on politics in which Dante supported the idea of a king to unite and control the many squabbling political factions of Italy. Il Convivio, or The Banquet, was a second collection of poems and commentaries. The Divine Comedy, which Dante began about 1306 and originally named simply The Comedy, tells the story of the author's imaginary voyage through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The three books of the poem consist of more than fourteen thousand lines, contained within one hundred cantos. In the first two books of the work, he is guided by Virgil, the historical author of the epic poem The Aeneid ; on the trip through Paradise he accompanies Beatrice, a distant love of Dante's youth to whom he dedicated all of his works. The poem is divided into three-line stanzas in a scheme known as terza rima, in which the first and third lines rhyme with the middle line of the previous stanza. The Divine Comedy is an allegory of an ordinary man's journey through life, and his striving to escape worldly sin and misery through reason, represented by Virgil, and the spiritual enlightenment and hope offered by God. Dante's work established the Tuscan dialect of Italian as a worthy language of poetry and other literary forms; the use of everyday language in his works and those of Giovanni Boccaccio greatly expanded the audience for poetry and prose. Dante's blend of religious and secular themes in his work also helped to bridge the medieval and humanist eras of European literature.

See Also: Boccaccio, Giovanni; Florence; literature

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (dăn´tē, Ital. dän´tā älēgyĕ´rē), 1265–1321, Italian poet, b. Florence. Dante was the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest of literary classics.

Life

Born into a Guelph family (see Guelphs and Ghibellines) of decayed nobility, Dante moved in patrician society. He was a member of the Florentine cavalry that routed the Ghibellines at Campaldino in 1289. The next year, after the death (1290) of Beatrice, the woman he loved, he plunged into intense study of classical philosophy and Provençal poetry. This woman, thought to have been Beatrice Portinari, was Dante's acknowledged source of spiritual inspiration.

Dante married Gemma Donati, had three children, and was active (1295–1300) as councilman, elector, and prior of Florence. In the complex politics of Florence, he found himself increasingly opposed to the temporal power of Pope Boniface VIII, and he eventually allied himself with the White Guelphs. After the victory of the Black Guelphs he was dispossessed and banished (1302). Exile made Dante a citizen of all Italy; he served various princes, but supported Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII as the potential savior of a united Italy. He died at the court of Guido da Polenta in Ravenna, where he is buried.

Works

Dante's reputation as the outstanding figure of Italian letters rests mainly on the Divine Comedy, a long vernacular poem in 100 cantos (more than 14,000 lines) composed during his exile. Dante entitled it Commedia; the adjective Divina was added in the 16th cent. It recounts the tale of the poet's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and is divided accordingly into three parts. In Hell and Purgatory Dante is guided by Vergil, through Heaven, by Beatrice, for whom the poem is a memorial. The work is written in terza rima, a complex verse form in pentameter, with interlocking triads rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc.

A magnificent synthesis of the medieval outlook, the Divine Comedy pictures a changeless universe ordered by God; its allegorical theme is the gradual revelation of God to the pilgrim. It is also a religious dialogue on the gradations of earthly sin and piety as well as on such topics as predestination and classical philosophy. The symbolism is complex yet highly rational; the verse is musical; and the entire work is one of great imagination. Through his masterpiece Dante established Tuscan as the literary language of Italy, surpassed all previous Italian writers, and gave rise to a vast literature.

Dante's works also include La vita nuova [the new life] (written c.1292), a collection of prose and lyrics celebrating Beatrice and illustrating his idealistic concept of love; the Convivio (c.1304), an encyclopedic allegory praising both love and science; De monarchia, a treatise on the need for kingly dominance in secular affairs; and De vulgare eloquentia, on rules for the Italian vernacular. In addition, he wrote numerous lyrics, eclogues, and epistles.

Bibliography

There are numerous translations of the Divine Comedy, including those by M. B. Anderson (1921), J. D. Sinclair (3 vol., 1939–46), D. Sayers (3 vol., 1963), R. Pinsky (of the Inferno, 1994), R. M. Durling (Vol. I–III, 1996–2013), R. and J. Hollander (3 vol., 2000–2007), M. J. Bang (of the Inferno, 2013), and C. James (2013). See biographies by M. Barbi (tr. 1954), P. J. Toynbee (ed. by C. S. Singleton, 1965), and R. W. B. Lewis (2001); studies by J. A. Symonds (1899, repr. 1973), B. Croce (1922, repr. 1973), C. S. Singleton (1954 and 1958), E. Auerbach (tr. 1961), T. G. Bergin (1967 and 1969), W. Anderson (1989), and M. Caesar (1989); K. Foster and P. Boyde, ed., Cambridge Readings in Dante's Comedy (1982); P. Shaw, Reading Dante (2014).

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) Italian poet. In his early years Dante wrote many canzoni to Beatrice Portinari, who remained the inspiration for much of his life's work. In 1300, he became one of the rulers of Florence, but was exiled in 1302 after a feud between the White and Black Guelphs. He never returned to Florence, but wrote under the patronage of various nobles until he died impoverished in Ravenna. His writings include The New Life (c.1293), Banquet (c.1304–07), On Monarchy (c.1313), and De Vulgari Eloquentia (1304–07). His masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, a three-book epic in terza rima, represents one of the pinnacles of Western literature and places Dante among the greatest writers of all time.

http://www.divinecomedy.org

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). Italian poet. Little is known of his early life, but as a child he met ‘Beatrice’ with whom he fell in love. She died in 1290, the wife of another, provoking a crisis for Dante resolved by his writing Vita Nuova. In that, he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’. That poem was his Divine Comedy, written sometime between 1305 and 1314. It is set in a period over Easter 1300 during which Dante travels from a dark forest (in which he has lost his way) through hell and purgatory to paradise.

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet, whose reputation rests chiefly on The Divine Comedy (c.1309–20), an epic poem describing his spiritual journey through Hell and Purgatory and finally to Paradise. His love for Beatrice Portinari is described in Vita nuova (c.1290–4).

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