Dante Alighieri Italian Poet's Biography
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri is known worldwide as one of the greatest poets of all time. His works, including La Vita Nuova and La Commedia Divina or The Divine Comedy, have been translated into several different languages and have inspired great artists both of the past and of modern times to create works of their own concerning the Divine Comedy. However, there is much more to be known about Dante. Not only was he a talented poet, he was also a politician, a statesman, a philosopher, a noble, an exile, and a theologian. Dante was a sort of Renaissance man, even before the idea came into being. There are many aspects about Dante’s character, personality, and his life that are worthy of further knowledge and exploration.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. He states in the Paradisio that he was born when the sun was in Gemini, fixing his birthday between May 18 and June 17 (Gardner 1). When he was just nine years old, an event happened in his life that would forever be the driving force of his existence (Howell 9-10). It was at this time that he met Beatrice, whose name is found in both La Vita Nuova and in The Divine Comedy. She too was only nine years old. They did not have an intimate relationship since for the first nine years he loved her, she never spoke to him. Only when he was nearly eighteen did Beatrice, now grown up into a “marvelous lady,” even bow to him (Walsh 102). Although the two married other people, Beatrice’s death in 1290 at the age of 24 had a profound affect on Dante. As he once said, “The things of the present, with their false pleasure turned my steps aside as soon as your face was hidden.“ (Howell 13). However, he later goes on to say that whatever delinquencies he charged himself were bitterly repented of and nobly atoned for. By 1294, Dante had already completed his La Vita Nuova, a medley of lyric verse and poetic prose, that tells of his love for Beatrice. In it, Dante describes his love for Beatrice as purely spiritual and mystical, showing his philosophical and religious ideals, as well as his thoughts on “Divine Love.” In the Divine Comedy Beatrice holds a very high spiritual position. She is seen as the “blessed soul who serves under the banner of the Queen of Glory (Walsh 109). She is a symbol of purity, truth, grace, and eternal wisdom. In portraying Beatrice in this manner, Dante reveals that his love for her, and his ideas on religion and spirituality have in many aspects been fused. It was not simply an earthly love, condemned to pass on as any other living thing; his love for Beatrice was, in his mind, eternal and highly spiritual.
Dante was born into the ancient but decadent Guelph family, and he grew up amidst the triumphs of the Florentine democracy, in which he took some share of fighting. He fought in the front rank of the Guelph cavalry at the battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289), when the Tuscan Ghibrellines were defeated by the forces of the Guelph league, of which Florence was the head (Gardner 1). 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.
Around the year 1300, Dante’s political life began to experience some of the turmoil that would plague him for the rest of his life. The ruling Guelph party, to which Dante was a member, had split into two factions, known as the Bianchi and the Neri, or “Whites” and “Blacks” respectively. Roughly speaking, the Bianchi were the constitutional party, supporting the burgher government and the Ordinances of Justice; the Neri relied on the support of the populace, and were strengthened by the favor of the Pope, who disliked and mistrusted the recent developments of the democratic policy of the republic (Gardner 1-2). Dante 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. During Dante’s leave the rivalry between the two factions intensified. The Blacks saw in the pope an ally against imperial power, but the Whites were determined to remain independent of both the Pope and the holy Roman Emperor. Dante aligned himself with the Whites in part because of his strong belief in the separation of church and state. In his works Monarchia and the Convivio, Dante accepts what the church says and he respects and holds high the Pope’s power and authority (Gilbert 110). He also states that the activity of the monarch is necessary to the world. He maintains that the church and the Pope do hold power, but this should be limited to spiritual matters and that the separation of church and state is a necessity. At Dante’s urging, the leaders of both factions were exiled in order to preserve peace in the city. The leaders of the Blacks, however, through the influence of Pope Boniface VIII, returned to Florence in 1301 and seized power. In 1302, after refusing to pay extensive fines, Dante was condemned to death should he ever return to Florence.
Dante’s exile was spent partly in Verona, as well as other cities in northern Italy. It is even believed that he spent some time in France. During his exile, his political beliefs underwent a drastic change, in that he began to embrace the cause of the Ghibellines, and he hoped for the unification of Europe under the reign of an enlightened emperor. His hopes were aroused when in 1310, Henry VIII, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor arrived in Italy. In a sense, Dante returned to the political arena, sending numerous letters to the princes and peoples of Italy, and to the Florentine Government, denouncing them for their opposition to the Emperor. He even sent a letter to Henry, rebuking him for his delay, and urging him to proceed at once against the rebellious city (Gardner 3). Dante’s hopes were brought to an abrupt end in 1313 with the death of Henry in Siena.
One positive outcome of Dante’s exile was that it produced his most enduring work. His epic masterpiece The Divine Comedy was probably begun about 1307, and completed shortly before his death. The work is divided into three sections: The Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). In each section, the poet meets with mythological, historical, and contemporary personages. Each character is symbolic of a particular fault or virtue, either religious or political; and the punishment or rewards given to each, which illustrates the larger meaning of their actions in the universal scheme. The Divine Comedy is, in many ways, as political as it is religious. It provides a summary of the political, scientific, and philosophical thought of the time, which gives us a written record of medieval thought. As a whole, the work contains many different meanings, and is supreme as a dramatization of Medieval Christian theology.
Dante was, in his own right, quite an accomplished philosopher and theologian. His education gave him a mastery of the Latin learning of the day. In the Convivio and De Monarchia, Dante builds on ideas first proposed by Aristotle. One such being man’s place as a “social animal”, and that man cannot for the purposes of ethics or morality be treated merely as an individual, but must be regarded as an individual forming part of an organized community. He also explored ideas concerning the goal of human civilization as a whole, thinking that goal to be the bringing about of that condition of things in which the intellect of all individuals in the world would be working together in the most effective manner possible. He argues humanity is most free when it can exist for its own sake and not for the sake of something else; in other words, when it is free to pursue its goal and is not deflected from it by being enslaved to the greed of its rulers. And it is under a Monarch alone that humanity is most free (Howell 53). In adopting many of Aristotle’s ideas and expounding on them, Dante showed his prowess as an accomplished philosopher.
In Dante’s mind, philosophy was a sort of bridge to theology and highly enlightened religious ideals. His masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is the most important Christian poem. (Compton’s Encyclopedia 32). In a letter written to Con Grande, he stated that his object was to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity. In the Comedy, Dante was conscious of a divine mission to proclaim God’s will and plan of salvation to mankind, and to stamp a deep impression on men’s minds of the eternal issues of good and evil-doing in this life (Howell 63). In a way, it seems that Dante valued religion more deeply than philosophy. The well known philosopher Virgil acts as Dante’s guide throughout the poem, but in it, Dante says that man must work out his own salvation and he cannot do it by the guidance of philosophy alone, without God’s grace. Another theological idea brought forth by Dante is that he believed it was only the wicked that were condemned to occupy Hell and that in rejecting their repentance, they were assigned to Hell instead of Purgatory (Gilbert 155).
Dante’s works, especially the Divine Comedy, have inspired numerous artists throughout history. Editions have been published containing illustrations by Botticelli and Michelangelo, English artists John Flaxman and William Blake, and French illustrator Gustave Dore. The Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky set parts of the poem to music and it formed the subject of symphonies by Franz Liszt and Giovanni Pacini, as well as contemporary composer Robert W. Smith. It has been translated into more than 25 languages, among the most notable English translations being rendered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867), and in the twentieth century, by English writer Dorothy L. Sayers and American poet and critic John Ciardi.
Dante was well known in his own time as a great writer and an accomplished politician, despite setbacks in his political career along the way. But never, perhaps, has his name and works been known as widely as today. He has been ranked among such greats as Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. And the Divine Comedy has topped many reader’s and critic’s charts. His works are read and studied in classrooms worldwide and there are several societies devoted to the study, appreciation, and analysis of Dante’s poems, seven hundred years after they were first written. Dante proposed many ideas to medieval society that challenged contemporary thought concerning the afterlife, the church, and the involvement of the church in government affairs. He also gave us guidelines to “Divine Love.” But probably the most important reason for Dante’s enduring influence is his ability to be deeply complex, and beautifully simple, all at the same time. His poetry in itself is easy enough for most common people to read, and it is beautiful and can be simple enough to understand and appreciate. Yet it contains enough complexities and symbolism to keep scholars and experts intrigued for the past seven hundred years. This could explain the enormous amount of literature that exists about Dante and his works, and why he is read and loved by millions today.
Dante spent the final years of his life as an exile, never being allowed to return to Florence again. After moving from city to city in northern Italy, Dante eventually settled in Ravenna, where he died on September 14, 1321. A small tomb in a monastery there holds the poet’s remains.
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