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Introduction; Early Years; La Vita Nuova; Dante's Political Life; Last Years; The Divine Comedy; Influence and Inspiration
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet, and one of the supreme figures of world literature, who was admired for the depth of his spiritual vision and for the range of his intellectual accomplishment.
Dante was born in Florence between late May and early June 1265, into a family of the lower nobility. His mother died in his childhood, his father when Dante was 18 years old. The most significant event of his youth, according to his own account, was his meeting in 1274 with Beatrice, the woman whom he loved, and whom he exalted, first in La vita nuova (The New Life) and later in his greatest work La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy). Scholars have identified Beatrice with the Florentine noblewoman Beatrice Portinari.
Little is known about Dante’s education, although his works reveal an erudition that encompassed nearly all the learning of his age. He was greatly influenced by the works of the Florentine philosopher and rhetorician Brunetto Latini, who appears as an important figure in The Divine Comedy. Dante is known to have been in Bologna about 1285, and he may have studied at the university there. During the political struggles that occurred in Italy at this time he initially supported the faction known as the Guelphs against the party known as the Ghibellines (see Guelphs and Ghibellines). In 1289 he was with the Guelph army of Florence at the Battle of Campaldino, in which the Florentines triumphed decisively over the Ghibelline armies of Pisa and Arezzo. About this time he married Gemma Donati, a member of a prominent Florentine Guelph family.
Dante’s first important literary work, La vita nuova, was written not long after the death of Beatrice. It is composed of sonnets and canzoni (love poems) woven together with a prose commentary. The work narrates the course of Dante’s love for Beatrice, his premonition of her death in a dream, her actual death, and his ultimate resolve to write a work that would be a worthy monument to her memory. La vita nuova clearly exhibits the influence of the love poetry of the Provençal troubadours and represents the finest work of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”) of contemporary Florentine vernacular poetry. It transcends the Provençal tradition in that it not only describes the poet’s love in terms of a lofty idealism but suggests a spiritual significance in the object of his adoration. La vita nuova, in its sustained intensity of feeling, is one of the greatest verse sequences in European literature.
During the next few years Dante was active in the turbulent political life of Florence. Records dating from 1295 indicate that he held several local offices in that year. He was sent on a diplomatic mission to San Gimignano in 1300 and later the same year was elected one of the six priors, or magistrates, of Florence, a post in which he served for only two months. The rivalry between the two factions within the Guelph Party of Florence, the Blacks, who saw in the pope an ally against imperial power, and the Whites, who were determined to remain independent of both pope and Holy Roman emperor, became intense during Dante’s tenure. At his urging, the leaders of both factions were exiled in order to preserve peace in the city. Through the influence of Pope Boniface VIII, however, the leaders of the Blacks returned to Florence in 1301 and seized power. In 1302 they banned Dante from the city for a period of two years and fined him heavily. Failing to make payment, he was condemned to death should he ever return to Florence.
Dante’s exile was spent partly in Verona and partly in other northern Italian cities; he reached Paris between 1307 and 1309. His political beliefs underwent a pronounced conversion during this period. Eventually embracing the cause of the Ghibellines, he hoped for the unification of Europe under the reign of an enlightened emperor.
During the early years of his exile Dante wrote two important works in Latin. De Vulgari Eloquentia (Concerning the Common Speech, 1304-1305) is a treatise on the uses and advantages of the Italian language. It defends the vernacular as a literary medium, attempts to establish certain criteria of good usage in written Italian, and concludes with a section devoted to criticism of Italian poetry. The unfinished Convivio (Banquet, c. 1304-07) was intended to be a digest, in 15 books, of all the knowledge of the time. The first book was to be introductory, and the remaining 14 were to take the form of commentary on 14 poems by Dante. Only the first 4 books, however, were completed.
Dante’s political hopes were strongly aroused by the arrival in Italy in 1310 of Henry VII, king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor. Henry’s purpose was to bring Italy under his sovereignty in fact as well as in name. In a feverish burst of political activity, Dante wrote to many Italian princes and political leaders, urging them to welcome the emperor and entreating them to look upon Henry’s suzerainty as a means of resolving the bitter strife among and within the Italian cities. Henry’s death in Siena in 1313 brought Dante’s hopes to an abrupt end. The Latin treatise De Monarchia (On Monarchy), probably written during the period of Henry’s stay in Italy, is an exposition of Dante’s political philosophy, including the need for a supranational Holy Roman Empire, as well as for complete separation of church and state.
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