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Dante Alighieri, the greatest Italian poet of all time, the Supreme Poet, is universally known for his masterpiece Divine Comedy, considered one of the greatest poems in world literature. Divided into three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – the Divine Comedy, in addition to the purely literary aspect, presents a comprehensive overview of the customs, attitudes, beliefs, philosophies, aspirations, and material aspects of the medieval world.
The greatest artists dominate and define their era, even if they are themselves defined by it. Dante is such an artist. He towers over the Middle Ages as a literary figure of reference, creating from medieval beliefs a poem that has conquered our art ever since. While Dante’s faith and theology may disappoint the modern reader, the sheer majesty of the vision and the blending of human thought and experience in visionary poetry continues to delight and inspire. With Dante, hyperbole is inevitable. He remains a touchstone for Western civilization.
The Divine Comedy is one of history’s most revered and influential works of literature; perhaps the greatest single poem was ever written. According to T.S. Eliot, Dante’s style is “the perfection of a common language,” After Shakespeare and Dante, “there is no third.” With Dante, we have the sense of Homer’s literature, the epic of the values of a culture restored in vernacular Italian that Dante legitimized in the poetic legacy that he transmitted to Shakespeare and the Renaissance. No modern writer seems as central to his time as Dante is to the Middle Ages. He is the visionary and essential conscience of his era.
Although Dante’s most important poetic works concern the private life of the soul and the world beyond, understanding his era and the forces that shaped his thinking is essential to tracing its development and uniqueness. Central to Dante’s public life was politics, the turmoil of his hometown of Florence: the conflict between its status as an independent, republican city-state and the power of the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy.
In Hell, Dante, building ex-post, an epic lineage, reports that his ancestors were among the first Romans to colonize Florencia, the Roman Florence. He was educated to play an important role in Florentine public and cultural life. In his first biography of Dante, Boccaccio states that as a young man, Dante studied poetry, painting, and music. His early poems indicate that he was influenced by French Provençal poetry, the classics known at the time, and Italian vernacular poetry, which was beginning to flourish.
After taking part in the Battle of Campaldino on 11 June 1289, as Alessandro Barbero recently and masterfully told us, Dante held increasingly important political offices until he became one of the main magistrates of Florence in 1300. Five years later, while on a diplomatic mission in Rome, he was unjustly accused of theft, fined, and banished for two years. He faced a death sentence or banishment when he refused to pay the fine. He never saw Florence again.
He spent the remaining years travelling, dependent on a succession of patrons in various Italian cities, hoping for a political regeneration of his city, which never came. Though his poetry is intensely private, centred on the self and the redeemer, the political struggle of his time is reflected in his art. It forms the underlying framework for the urgency of his moral and spiritual musings.
On a personal and symbolic level, the most important moment in Dante’s life was the meeting, at the age of nine, with Beatrice Portinari, for whom he conceived an ideal passion that lasted a lifetime. Although contact with Beatrice was almost non-existent, her death in 1290 inspired him to write La Vita Nuova. This psychological and spiritual autobiography mixes sonnets and odes with prose commentary to trace the development of his love for Beatrice. The work, unique in medieval literature, combines the lyrical and the philosophical in a narrative of growing up. Among Dante’s other important works, we remember the Convivio, significant for the use of Italian prose instead of Latin for serious reflections; the De Vulgari Eloquentia, which establishes the objectives and means for the realization of vernacular literature; and De Monarchia, his political theories on good governance, which radically suggest the separation of Church and State.
Dante became one of the most cultured men in Europe, whose reflections on his world and his erudition were summarized in the monumental Comedy, written between 1308 and 1321 (the title Divine was added in the 16th century). The scope of Dante’s project was unprecedented: to dramatize in intensely personal terms, in a single poem, Christian cosmology, and the doctrines that shaped the medieval worldview.
His work is referred to as “Comedy,” reflecting both the process of the poem from sin to redemption and Dante’s style, which differs from the formal grandeur of epic and tragedy. Written in direct, conversational language, the poem is broad enough to encompass all aspects of the human experience, the tragic and the comic, in a way that redefines the epic as an inner, spiritual journey toward a full understanding of God and God. ‘universe.
From a literary point of view, the Middle Ages was a period of great importance for the development of European kinds of literature because it was during this period that most of the Western European languages, such as Spanish, French, and Italian, were born from the differentiated evolution of Latin in each geographical area. At the end of the High Middle Ages, however, the emergence of national literature still clashed with the immense prestige of Latin and the literary splendour of Antiquity; the languages mentioned above were “vulgar” languages, valid only for oral communication.
Despite the allegorical tendency to view Dante in the poem as an everyman, his linking of the spiritual and the divine to the recognizable world is the source of the poem’s great strength. In his journey, guided first by the spirit of Virgil and then by Beatrice, Dante is confronted with the essential moral and human issues of sin and faith in a greater power that orders human destiny beyond the individual. The Comedy stretches to the limit of the artistic imagination captured in a poem that is itself clear, precise, serious, and sublime. Dante’s structural genius, his development of a poetic style that was flexible and capable of a great variety of effects, and his placing of human experience at the centre of poetry, contemplating the essential questions of existence, exerted their influence on all subsequent literature in the West.
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Dante (diminutive of Durante) Alighieri was the son of the first marriage of the usurer and merchant Bellincione d’Alighiero with Gabriella or Bella (probably belonging to the Abati family). He had an older sister and, after the premature death of his mother (around 1270) and his father’s remarriage to Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi, he also enjoyed the company of two half-brothers, Francesco and Gaetana.
He was born in Florence under the sign of Gemini, between 15 May and 15 June 1265; Dante traced his lineage back to his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida, who would have been ennobled by Conrad III and killed in the second crusade in the Holy Land in 1147. But it is more certain that he belonged to a family of the nascent urban bourgeoisie, with few properties devoted by some generation to trade. In fact, both his father and grandfather, Bellincione, had a reputation for being usurers.
At the end of the 13th century, in the year of Dante’s birth, Florence lost its character as a liberal city, until then under the aegis of the Ghibellines (supporters of imperial power against the papacy). A period of bloody struggles began with the Guelphs, divided into factions which, while acknowledging their submission to the papacy, engaged in wars as open as those opposing them to the common enemy. According to some chroniclers, Dante’s father had been a Ghibelline. Others attribute the family to the Guelphs. It is certain, however, that Dante belonged to the Guelph party and, within it, to the faction of “white” moderates.
His childhood and youth coincided with the most peaceful years that Florence experienced at the time, above all until the accession of Boniface VIII to the throne of St. Peter in 1295. Since then, Dante, who had already participated as a Guelph soldier in the siege of Poggio di Santa Cecilia against the Arezzo people (1285) and had been a knight in the Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289), again against the Ghibellines, openly adhered to the Guelph political ideals of democracy and municipal independence.
Between 1295 and 1302, his political life was very active, even if it is known only from literary sources (his allusions in the Divine Comedy), documents, or non-direct testimonies. After joining the corporation of doctors and specialists, from 1295 to 1296, he was a member of the Council of the Captain of the People, representative of the popular authority in parallel with the supreme authority of the podestà; from May to September 1296, after leaving his former position, he sat on the Council of the Hundred (citizens’ parliament) and passed laws against the magnates.
With Boniface VIII as pope, the struggle between the various Guelph factions intensified; the “blacks,” led by the Donatis, a family of magnates, obtained the unconditional support of the pope, and immediately what had been an internal Florentine feud escalated into a conflict between the city and the papacy. The “white” Guelphs, led by the bankers and merchants Cerchi, were defeated in 1301, in a sequence of dramatic repercussions for Dante: in June, he gave evidence of his opposition to sending a hundred men to help Boniface VIII in his war in Maremma; in October he was appointed ambassador to the pontiff, and on his arrival in Rome he was detained by him in the city. In November, while Dante was still (probably) in Rome, Corso Donati, leader of the “blacks,” entered Florence and carried out a terrible reprisal against the “whites.” Six hundred were banished, and the poet was sentenced to a two-year exile and lifelong ban from Florentine public affairs.
Beatrice and new life
In 1274, at nine, Dante met Beatrice for the first time, the daughter of the banker Folco Portinari. At eighteen, he met her for the second time; both of these moments are remembered in the Vita Nuova, a very original work of his youth, consisting of a collection of thirty-one poems linked by prose halfway between the conceptual and the autobiographical. The plot of him covers eighteen years from the first meeting with Beatrice; the thirty-one poems form the apex of Dolce stil nuovo (a term coined by Dante himself in a verse of Purgatory), already practiced by the poet Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti under the direct influence of the Provençal poetry of the troubadours.
According to the custom of the time, when the young poet was eleven, his marriage was arranged with Gemma Donati, whom he probably married between 1285 and 1293, and with whom he had at least four children: Giovanni, Pietro, Jacopo, and Antonia. She, the latter, survived him and, after the death of her illustrious father, entered the convent under the name of Sister Beatrice. But of Dante’s family and marital life, very little is known; instead, the poet recorded the fundamental data of his true spirit and love life linked to Beatrice.
No less important than his encounters with Beatrice were his intellectual connections with the humanist Brunetto Latini, who had returned from exile in Florence in 1266, and with the poet and philosopher Guido Cavalcanti. From the first, Dante learned both the secrets of Latin rhetoric and the pleasures of writing in the Romance language; it was Latini who provided him with the models for the works of his youth, such as Il fiore (1295-1300), in which Dante adapted the Roman de la Rose into Italian verse. Romance poetry was only fifty years old in Italy when Guinizelli and Cavalcanti, under the somewhat more distant influence of the pioneer Guittone d’Arezzo, founded the school of the faithful of love, invented the figure of the “angelic woman” (in which physical beauty and celestial purity were combined) and gave shape to the great Italian opera that would culminate in Dante and Petrarch. From there emerged the image of Beatrice, which would assume theological and philosophical dimensions unthinkable in the Divine Comedy.
Beatrice Portinari is thought to have died after giving birth in 1290; therefore, Dante’s marriage and the publication of La vita nuova are post-fact. The poet recalled the episode in work, announcing at the same time the subsequent poetic transformation. When Beatrice died, Dante consoled himself with a vision in which his beloved appeared as part of the celestial court, and the poet began to speak again of Beatrice to say what was never written about a woman. Fifteen years later, in the Divine Comedy, the poetic significance of this promise would be revealed.
Between 1302 and 1307, Dante begins two works of his maturity: Il convivio and De vulgari eloquentia. The first contains some fundamental themes that he would later develop on the four meanings of Scripture, the two types of allegories, and the need for the empire’s existence. The second is a manifesto written in Latin on the legitimacy of using the vernacular, in which he defends romanticism for all styles, including the lofty or tragic.
Very little about his political and domestic activities during these five years is known. In 1303 Dante was in Forlì as an advisor to Scarpetta Ordelaffi, commander of the “whites,” while the following year, after the defeat of his supporters in the Battle of Lastra (July 20), he decided to separate from his former faction. In 1305 he may have lived in Bologna, a privileged environment from an intellectual point of view, where he continued to draft the two works mentioned above and from where he was expelled on October 6, 1306, first to take refuge in Lunigiana, under the protection of the Malaspinas; then, in 1307, in the Casentino with Count Guido di Battifolle (Conti Guidi); and finally, in 1308 probably in Lucca. Dante is supposed to have started writing Hell, the first part of the Divine Comedy, months earlier.
During the first years of his exile, Dante meditated at length on the question of the relationship between temporal and religious power; the first results of these meditations are the two well-known letters (of 1308 and 1310), one of which is addressed “to all the kings of Italy, to all the lords of the Holy City, to the dukes, counts, marquises and cities,” and the other to the “wicked Florentines who reside in the city”; in this second letter, he advocates submission to imperial power. But the final result of these reflections was the treatise Monarchia (1318). He stated that spiritual and temporal power emanated directly from God, so the empire and the papacy were autonomous.
If we accept 1318 as the completion date of the De monarquia, we can see that its gestation was accompanied by the progressive hardening of its author’s conditions of exile. In 1302, after being sentenced to exile, another sentence condemned him to be burned alive if he returned to Florence; in 1311, a general amnesty granted to the “white” Guelphs did not apply to him; finally, in 1315, he was sentenced to death by beheading in absentia, when he refused the offer of a pardon on terms he considered dishonorable.
The divine Comedy
Resigned not to return to Florence, in 1318, he left Verona and joined his sons in Ravenna; there, he produced two Eclogues in Latin (compositions in bucolic form) and a treatise on the question of water and land. The last years of his life were extraordinarily fruitful: in the dedication of Paradise in the famous letter to Cangrande della Scala (1316), lord of Verona, Dante grandly established the scope of his incomparable Comedy: “The meaning of this work is not unique, but it can be called polysemic, that is, of many meanings; in fact, the first meaning is that which comes from the letter, the other is that which is obtained from the meaning through the letter.”
As is known, the “Commedia” is divided into three books or songs: Inferno, written around 1312; Purgatory, around 1315; Paradise, between 1316 and 1321). It is composed of 14,233 hendecasyllable verses in third rhyme (Dante’s tercet or chained tercet), grouped into 100 songs, one of which is the prologue, so each of the three parts or books contains 33 songs. The story, now of universal dominion, narrates the journey of the poet in the realms of the underworld, accompanied by the Latin poet Virgil. At the age of thirty-five, Dante finds himself lost in the dark forest (la selva); from there, he is saved by Virgil, sent by the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia, and Beatrice. Both descend to Hell and travel its nine circles; then they climb the mountain of Purgatory, and there, at the entrance to Paradise, Virgil gives way to Beatrice, who leads him to the Empyrean, where for a moment, the poet enjoys the vision of divinity.
The “Comedy” owes its name, according to medieval knowledge, to its “ascending movement,” that is, in other words, from Hell to Paradise, there is a happy ending (otherwise, it would be a Tragedy): the subject is gloomy and dramatic in the first book, but hopeful in the second and happy in the third; the adjective “Divine,” with which it has come down to us, was added by posterity. Indeed, for its immeasurable poetic value, the ambition and scope of its philosophical vision, the beauty and precision of its imagery, and the perfection of its language, the Comedy has been considered the greatest poem of Christianity.
When he finished writing Paradise, Dante was already certain that his ban from Florence was definitive: the imposition of the death sentence of 1315, following his refusal of the amnesty, also extended to his descendants. In 1319, probably, the poet was in the service of the lord of Ravenna, Guido da Polenta, perhaps as a secretary or tutor of rhetoric. Early in 1321, the Doge of Venice threatened a punitive expedition against Ravenna due to a dispute over the exploitation of some salt mines bordering the two jurisdictions, and Dante traveled to Venice as Ravenna’s ambassador to appease the Venetians. The round trip to Venice, made in the middle of summer, first by land and then through the lagoons of the Adriatic coast, was fatal: on his return to Ravenna, Dante fell seriously ill with malaria contracted during his missions. He died between 13 and 14 September 1321 and was buried, among solemn tributes, in the Church of San Francesco in Ravenna.
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