The literary world remembered Dante during the month of September. Italy, the country of his birth, commemorated the seven hundredth year of his demise with the respect a poet of his stature deserves.
Birth and Early Life
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence sometime in May, 1265 to a family which belonged to the minor nobility. Information about his background and career can be gleaned from his own writings, from the sketch by his neighbour, Giovanni Villani, from the eulogy which bears the name of Giovanni Boccacccio, the author of Decameron. It appeared after the death of the poet. The fifteenth century biography of Leonardo Bruni also provides interesting details.
Dante’s family name, Alagherius in its latinized version, was spelt Alaghieri during his lifetime. It was written Alighieri after his death. His name is a shortened form of Durante.
It becomes clear that Dante came from a family who valued education. He had his elementary training from the Dominicans and attended the Franciscan school of Santa Croce in his youth. As a young man, he was fond of travelling, had knowledge of art and drawing and, above all, an abiding interest in poetry. He is remembered for La Vita Nuova which was first published around 1292. Its English version, The New Life, appeared in 1861. La Divina Commedia, his magnum opus, dates back to around 1320. Its English translation, The Divine Comedy, came out of print in 1802. From his writings we gather that he was familiar with both urban and rural life.
He married Gemma Donati sometime between 1283 and 1285. She was from a relatively wealthy family. This marriage enabled Dante to strengthen his political connections.
The Vicissitudes of Life
Dante’s first involvement in the political life of Florence dates from 1295. He worked tirelessly during this period for Florentine independence and the extension of papal political influence. In 1300, he served as the representative of Florence to San Gimignano. While on a mission to Rome, opposing political factions indicted him on a false accusation of embezzlement. He was condemned, first, to pay a fine, then to exile, and then to death. It is likely that Dante could have restored himself to the city through payment of the fine but herefused to do so. Instead, he spent the first few months of 1302 conspiring with other Florentine exiles. He was soon dissatisfied with their violent radicalism and opted for the life of an exile. His wife and children remained in Florence and the years that ensued were lonely and filled with frustration. During these difficult years he could fortunately depend on the assistance of wealthy friends.
Dante left Verona in 1304 for Bologna, probably for the university, where he had been known as early as 1287. His wanderings subsequently took him to Padua in 1306. In the course of the same year he travelled to Lunigiana, the city of the Malaspina family. During his stay there, Dante was at the service of the Malaspinas both as negotiator and attorney, assisting in their conclusion of a peaceful agreement with the Bishop of Luni. Boccaccio’s report mentions that Dante subsequently travelled throughout northern Italy, following the course of the river Arno and perhaps, from 1307 to 1309, he lived in Paris.
When Henry VII (Henry of Luxembourg) became Holy Roman Emperor in 1312, Dante hoped that a rapprochement between church and state would be possible. He praised Henry’s idealism and supported his imperial visions. Unfortunately, Henry’s efforts failed and he died in 1313. So did Dante’s hopes of a triumphant return to Florence.
He found refuge in the cities of Verona and Ravenna in the aftermath of the political turmoil that followed Henry’s death. He spent his final years at Ravenna. Guido Novello da Polenta was his patron. Guido’s illicit love for Paolo da Malatesta had by this time been immortalized by Dante in Inferno 5 of The Divine Comedy. He spent his final years engaged in occasional diplomatic missions for Guido. He breathed his last on September 13 or 14, 1321.
The Experiences that Accompany Life
Dante introduced the use of vernacular language in poetry and pioneered the secular use of allegory, creating verse which is simultaneously historical, universal and intensely personal.
Love’s transcendent power directs both The New Life and The Divine Comedy to their conclusions. Though completely different in scope and complexity, both poems ratify this transcendence through the signification of language and the figure of Beatrice. Still, one indication of the aesthetic distance between the two works is that The New Life emphasizes how love offers the means by which life evolves while The Divine Comedy identifies pure love as the First Cause of the cosmos itself. It is a mark of Dante’s artistry that he manages to universalize the high personal situations upon which both works depend.
The mode of allegory in The Divine Comedy enables him to achieve this even as he retains a great variety of particularized references. It represents the mature Dante’s solution to the poet’s task enunciated in The New Life. Its three canticles (the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradisio) display a nearly limitless wealth of references to historical facts of the late Middle Ages and to Dante’s own life. Its allegorical form allows these to function as symbols. The Pilgrim’s journey from Hell to Heaven thus becomes an emblem of all human experience and a recognition of life’s circularity. The “comedy” of its title is therefore the situation of life and the gamut of experiences that inevitably accompanies it.