Dante Alighieri

(1265 - 1321 / Florence / Italy)

Biography of Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri poet

Durante degli Alighieri, mononymously referred to as Dante, was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, moral philosopher, and political thinker. He is best known for the monumental epic poem La commedia, later named La divina commedia (Divine Comedy), considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.

In Italy he is known as il Sommo Poeta ("the Supreme Poet") 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"


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), but these cannot be considered definitive statements by Dante about his birth. However, in 1265 the Sun was in Gemini approximately during the period 11 May to 11 June.

His birth date is listed as "probably in the end of May" by Robert Hollander in "Dante" in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, volume 4. In summary, most students of Dante's life believe that he was born between about the middle of May and about the middle of June 1265, but there is little likelihood a definite date will ever be known.

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.

Dante's family was prominent in Florence, with 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. This woman definitely bore two children, Dante's brother Francesco and sister Tana (Gaetana).

Marriage and Later Life

When Dante was 12, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Messer Manetto Donati. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common and involved a formal ceremony, including contracts signed before a notary. Dante had already fallen in love with another woman, Beatrice Portinari (known also as Bice). Years after his marriage to Gemma, he met Beatrice again. He had become interested in writing verse, and although he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems.

Dante fought in the front rank of 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 arts". So Dante entered the guild of physicians and apothecaries. In following years, his name is frequently found recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic.

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, Gabrielle Alighieri and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice.

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. At this point, he began sketching the foundation for the Divine Comedy, a work in 100 cantos, divided into three books of thirty-three cantos each, with a single introductory canto.

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 Madame Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio, XXIV, 37). Some speculative sources say that he was also in Paris between 1308 and 1310. Other sources, even less trustworthy, take him to Oxford. 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, suggesting several particular targets that coincided with his personal enemies. It was during this time that he wrote the first two books of the Divine Comedy.

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 he 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, 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 steep 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.

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 built a tomb in 1483.

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