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1265 - 1321
The life of the Italian poet and politician Dante Alighieri.
The Italian writer Dante Alighieri completes his collection of poems The New Life (La Vita Nuova).
Dante Alighieri is appointed prior of Florence.
The Italian poet and politician Dante Alighieri is exiled from Florence.
The Italian writer Dante Alighieri completes his collection of poems and commentaries The Banquet (Convivio).
The Italian poet and politician Dante Alighieri writes his political treatise Monarchy (De Monarchia).
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri completes his epic the Divine Comedy.
13 Sep 1321
The Italian poet Dante Alighieri dies of malaria in Ravenna.
Christian History Timeline: Dante’s Turbulent World
1300 Black and White Guelfs begin street warfare in Florence Boniface VIII proclaims Jubilee poet Guido Cavalcanti, Dante’s friend whom he had reluctantly banished from Florence, dies of illness contracted during exile
1301 Charles of Valois called to pacify Florence but takes Black Guelf side instead
1302 In the bull Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII makes sweeping claims of papal supremacy
1303 Boniface VIII founds University of Rome, then dies after confrontation with King Philip’s men
1304 Petrarch, celebrated humanist poet, born
1305 Papacy begins “Babylonian Captivity” at Avignon, France
1307 To seize their wealth, King Philip begins slandering and torturing the Knights Templar, a military order founded to protect Holy Land pilgrims
1308 Giotto’s teacher, artist Giovanni Cimabue, dies
1311 Henry of Luxembourg crowned Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII
1312 Henry lays siege to Florence, then abandons campaign to unify Italy
1313 Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, born in Paris
c. 1320 Aztecs found their capital at Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City)
1321 William Bélibaste, the last Albigensian perfect in Languedoc (southern France), is burned at the stake
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #70 in 2001]
14th Century [ edit | edit source ]
1300 [ edit | edit source ]
Pope Boniface VIII proclaims Jubilee year.
May 25 2014 [ edit | edit source ]
Florentine Guelphs splinter into "black" and "white" factions.
1300, June 15 [ edit | edit source ]
Dante, a white Guelph, elected to the Council of Priors for a term of two months.
1301, October [ edit | edit source ]
Travels to Rome as part of Florentine embassy to Boniface.
1301, November [ edit | edit source ]
Detained as Charles of Valots (at Boniface's behest) enters Florence and allows black Guelphs to overthrow whites and sack the city.
1302, January 27 [ edit | edit source ]
Sentenced to exile for Florence for two years and fined five thousand florins.
1302, March 10 [ edit | edit source ]
Permanently banned from Florentine territory under pain of death by fire.
1303-7 [ edit | edit source ]
In Verona, Arezzo, Trevisa, the Lunigiana region (northwest of Lucca) and the Casentino region (north of Arezzo).
1303, October 11 [ edit | edit source ]
Death of Pope Boniface VIII
1304, July 20 [ edit | edit source ]
Alliance of exiled white Guelphs and Ghibellines defeated at La Lastra outside Florence (Dante not present). Whites the "De Vulgari Eloquentina" and "Convivo" (both left incomplete).
1304-9 [ edit | edit source ]
Concieves and composes "The Inferno".
1308-9 [ edit | edit source ]
In Lucca, perhaps with his wife and children.
1308-12 [ edit | edit source ]
Concieves and composes "Purgatorio".
1309 [ edit | edit source ]
Pope Clement V moves the papacy from Rome to Avignon.
1310-12 [ edit | edit source ]
Henry VII of Luxemborg descends into Italy. Dante accompanies him on visits to several cities.
1312-18 [ edit | edit source ]
Resides in Verona in the household of Cangrande della Scala.
1313 [ edit | edit source ]
1314 [ edit | edit source ]
Publishes "The Inferno". Implores Italian cardinals to return the papacy to Rome.
1315 [ edit | edit source ]
Refuses Florence's offer to allow him to return in exchange for admission of guilt and payment of a reduced fine. Publishes "Purgatorio" and begins "Paradiso".
1317 [ edit | edit source ]
1318-21 [ edit | edit source ]
In Ravenna as guest of Guido Novello da Polenta.
1319-20 [ edit | edit source ]
Exchanges Latin eclogues with Giocanni del Virgilio.
1321 [ edit | edit source ]
Completed "Paradiso". Contracts malaria during return from a diplomatic mission to Venice. Dies in Ravenna on September 13 or 14.
Dante was born in Florence, Republic of Florence, in what is now Italy. The exact date of his birth is unknown, although it is generally believed to be around 1265. This can be deduced from autobiographic allusions in the Divine Comedy. Its first section, the Inferno, begins, "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" ("Midway upon the journey of our life"), implying that Dante was around 35 years old, since the average lifespan according to the Bible (Psalm 89:10, Vulgate) is 70 years and since his imaginary travel to the netherworld took place in 1300, he was most probably 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). In 1265, the sun was in Gemini between approximately 11 May and 11 June (Julian calendar). 
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), born 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 middle of the 13th century. This suggests that Alighiero or his family may have enjoyed some protective prestige and status, although some suggest that the politically inactive Alighiero was of such low standing that he was not considered worth exiling. 
Dante's family was loyal 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, probably a member of the Abati family.  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, since widowers were socially limited in such matters, but she definitely bore him two children, Dante's half-brother Francesco and half-sister Tana (Gaetana). 
Dante said he first met Beatrice Portinari, daughter of Folco Portinari, at age nine, and claimed to have fallen in love with her "at first sight", apparently without even talking with her.  When he was 12, however, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Manetto Donati, member of the powerful Donati family.  Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common and involved a formal ceremony, including contracts signed before a notary.  Dante claimed to have seen Beatrice again frequently after he turned 18, exchanging greetings with her in the streets of Florence, though he never knew her well. 
Years after his marriage to Gemma he claims to have met Beatrice again he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice but never mentioned Gemma in any of his poems though other Donati relations, notably Forese and Piccarda, appear in his Divine Comedy. The exact date of his marriage is not known: the only certain information is that, before his exile in 1301, he had three children (Pietro, Jacopo and Antonia). 
Dante fought with the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino (11 June, 1289).  This victory brought about a reformation of the Florentine constitution. To take any part in public life, one had to enroll in one of the city's many commercial or artisan guilds, so Dante entered the Physicians' and Apothecaries' Guild. In the following years, his name is occasionally recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic. A substantial portion of minutes from such meetings in the years 1298–1300 was lost, however, so the true extent of Dante's participation in the city's councils is uncertain. [ citation needed ]
Not much is known about Dante's education he presumably studied at home or in a chapter school attached to a church or monastery in Florence. It is known that he studied Tuscan poetry and that he admired the compositions of the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizelli—whom in Purgatorio XXVI he characterized as his "father"—at a time when the Sicilian School (Scuola poetica Siciliana), a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests brought him to discover the Provençal poetry of the troubadours, such as Arnaut Daniel, and the Latin writers of classical antiquity, including Cicero, Ovid and especially Virgil. 
Dante's interactions with Beatrice set an example of so-called courtly love, a phenomenon developed in French and Provençal poetry of prior centuries. Dante's experience of such love was typical, but his expression of it was unique. It was in the name of this love that Dante left his imprint on the dolce stil novo (sweet new style, a term which Dante himself coined), and he would join other contemporary poets and writers in exploring never-before-emphasized aspects of love (Amore). Love for Beatrice (as Petrarch would show for Laura somewhat differently) would be his reason for poetry and for living, together with political passions. In many of his poems, she is depicted as semi-divine, watching over him constantly and providing spiritual instruction, sometimes harshly. When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante sought refuge in Latin literature.  The Convivio chronicles his having read Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and Cicero's De Amicitia. He then dedicated himself to philosophical studies at religious schools like the Dominican one in Santa Maria Novella. He took part in the disputes that the two principal mendicant orders (Franciscan and Dominican) publicly or indirectly held in Florence, the former explaining the doctrines of the mystics and of St. Bonaventure, the latter expounding on the theories of St. Thomas Aquinas. 
At 18, Dante met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia and soon after Brunetto Latini together they became the leaders of the dolce stil novo. Brunetto later received special mention in the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XV, 28) for what he had taught Dante: Nor speaking less on that account I go With Ser Brunetto, and I ask who are his most known and most eminent companions.  Some fifty poetical commentaries by Dante are known (the so-called Rime, rhymes), others being included in the later Vita Nuova and Convivio. Other studies are reported, or deduced from Vita Nuova or the Comedy, regarding painting and music. [ citation needed ]
Dante, like most Florentines of his day, was embroiled in the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict. He fought in the Battle of Campaldino (11 June, 1289), with the Florentine Guelphs against Arezzo Ghibellines   then in 1294 he was among the escorts of Charles Martel of Anjou (grandson of Charles I of Anjou) while he was in Florence. To further his political career, he became a pharmacist. He did not intend to practice as one, but a law issued in 1295 required nobles aspiring to public office to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni delle Arti e dei Mestieri, so Dante obtained admission to the Apothecaries' Guild. This profession was not inappropriate since at that time books were sold from apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little but held various offices over some years in a city rife with political unrest. [ citation needed ]
After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into two factions: the White Guelphs (Guelfi Bianchi)—Dante's party, led by Vieri dei Cerchi—and the Black Guelphs (Guelfi Neri), led by Corso Donati. Although the split was along family lines at first, ideological differences arose based on opposing views of the papal role in Florentine affairs, with the Blacks supporting the Pope and the Whites wanting more freedom from Rome. The Whites took power first and expelled the Blacks. In response, Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of Florence. In 1301, Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip IV of France, was expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker for Tuscany. But the city's government had treated the Pope's ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from papal influence. It was believed that Charles had received other unofficial instructions, so the council sent a delegation that included Dante to Rome to ascertain the Pope's intentions. [ citation needed ]
Pope Boniface quickly dismissed the other delegates and asked Dante alone to remain in Rome. At the same time (1 November, 1301), Charles of Valois entered Florence with the 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 Cante dei Gabrielli da Gubbio was appointed podestà of the city. In March 1302, Dante, a White Guelph by affiliation, along with the Gherardini family, was condemned to exile for two years and ordered to pay a large fine.  Dante was accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing by the Black Guelphs for the time that Dante was serving as city prior (Florence's highest position) for two months in 1300.  The poet was still in Rome in 1302 where the Pope, who had backed the Black Guelphs, had "suggested" that Dante stay. Florence under the Black Guelphs, therefore, considered Dante an absconder.  Dante 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 if he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he could have been burned at the stake. (In June 2008, nearly seven centuries after his death, the city council of Florence passed a motion rescinding Dante's sentence.)  In 1306–07, Dante was a guest of Moroello Malaspina [it] in the region of Lunigiana. 
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, grew disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his erstwhile allies and vowed to become a party of one. He 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 a woman called Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio, XXIV, 37). Some speculative sources claim he visited Paris between 1308 and 1310, and other sources even less trustworthy took him to Oxford: these claims, first occurring in Boccaccio's book on Dante several decades after his death, seem inspired by readers who were impressed with the poet's wide learning and erudition. Evidently, Dante's command of philosophy and his literary interests deepened in exile and when he was no longer busy with the day-to-day business of Florentine domestic politics, and this is evidenced in his prose writings in this period, but there is no real evidence that he ever left Italy. Dante's Immensa Dei dilectione testante to Henry VII of Luxembourg confirms his residence "beneath the springs of Arno, near Tuscany" in March 1311. [ citation needed ]
In 1310, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII of Luxembourg marched into Italy at the head of 5,000 troops. Dante saw in him a new Charlemagne who would restore the office of the Holy Roman Emperor to its former glory and also retake 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 in his writings, he invoked the worst anger of God against his city and suggested several particular targets that were also his personal enemies. It was during this time that he wrote De Monarchia, proposing a universal monarchy under Henry VII. 
At some point during his exile, he conceived of the Comedy, but the date is uncertain. The work is much more assured and on a larger scale than anything he had produced in Florence it is likely he would have undertaken such a work only after he realized his political ambitions, which had been central to him up to his banishment, had been halted for some time, possibly forever. It is also noticeable that Beatrice has returned to his imagination with renewed force and with a wider meaning than in the Vita Nuova in Convivio (written c. 1304–07) he had declared that the memory of this youthful romance belonged to the past. [ citation needed ]
An early indication that the poem was underway is a notice by Francesco da Barberino, tucked into his Documenti d'Amore (Lessons of Love), probably written in 1314 or early 1315. Francesco notes that Dante followed the Aeneid in a poem called "Comedy" and that the setting of this poem (or part of it) was the underworld i.e., hell.  The brief note gives no incontestable indication that he himself had seen or read even the Inferno or that this part had been published at the time, but it indicates composition was well underway and that the sketching of the poem might have begun some years before. (It has been suggested that a knowledge of Dante's work also underlies some of the illuminations in Francesco da Barberino's earlier Officiolum [c. 1305–08], a manuscript that came to light only in 2003.  ) It is known that the Inferno had been published by 1317 this is established by quoted lines interspersed in the margins of contemporary dated records from Bologna, but there is no certainty as to whether the three parts of the poem were each published in full or, rather, a few cantos at a time. Paradiso seems to have been published posthumously. [ citation needed ]
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 attack 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. Henry VII died (from a fever) in 1313 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 certain security and, presumably, in a fair degree of prosperity. Cangrande was admitted to Dante's Paradise (Paradiso, XVII, 76). 
During the period of his exile Dante corresponded with Dominican theologian Fr. Nicholas Brunacci OP [1240–1322] who had been a student of Thomas Aquinas at the Santa Sabina studium in Rome, later at Paris,   and of Albert the Great at the Cologne studium.  Brunacci became lector at the Santa Sabina studium, forerunner of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and later served in the papal curia. 
In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to those in exile, including Dante. But for this, Florence required public penance in addition to a heavy fine. 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 he would never enter the town again. He refused to go, and his death sentence was confirmed and extended to his sons. He still hoped late in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honorable terms. [ citation needed ]
Why so divine?
Why the exalted status? It is, in part, due to the vivid manner in which Dante described the torments of hell, the uncertainty of purgatory, and the glories of heaven. These are themes every human must come to terms with. The images he left us not only made an indelible mark upon his readers, but on Western civilization itself. Who can look at Pierre Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker contemplating the gates of hell (a scene from Inferno) and not be moved as the pit of hell devours its newest residents? Famed poet T. S. Eliot also drew upon Dante’s influence in several of his works including “The Waste Land,” which echoes scenes of death and hell from the Inferno.
Dante’s epic poem has even reached into pop culture over the years, especially in America. Perhaps it is so accessible in part because Dante wrote for ordinary Italians in the first place. Aside from films of the poem itself and those countless English-language translations, references and allusions to it have appeared in dozens of movies and television programs: when the popular Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game finds inspiration from the master poet.
Writer Rod Dreher, author of How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal about Dante rescuing him from depression:
If testimonies throughout the last 700 years of Western civilization are any evidence, Dreher is not alone. CH
This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!
By Rebecca Price Janney
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]
Rebecca Price Janney is the author of Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell .
Early life and the Vita nuova
Most of what is known about Dante’s life he has told himself. He was born in Florence in 1265 under the sign of Gemini (between May 21 and June 20) and remained devoted to his native city all his life. Dante describes how he fought as a cavalryman against the Ghibellines, a banished Florentine party supporting the imperial cause. He also speaks of his great teacher Brunetto Latini and his gifted friend Guido Cavalcanti, of the poetic culture in which he made his first artistic ventures, his poetic indebtedness to Guido Guinizelli, the origins of his family in his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, whom the reader meets in the central cantos of the Paradiso (and from whose wife the family name, Alighieri, derived), and, going back even further, of the pride that he felt in the fact that his distant ancestors were descendants of the Roman soldiers who settled along the banks of the Arno.
Yet Dante has little to say about his more immediate family. There is no mention of his father or mother, brother or sister in The Divine Comedy. A sister is possibly referred to in the Vita nuova, and his father is the subject of insulting sonnets exchanged in jest between Dante and his friend Forese Donati. Because Dante was born in 1265 and the exiled Guelfs, to whose party Dante’s family adhered, did not return until 1266, Dante’s father apparently was not a figure considerable enough to warrant exile. Dante’s mother died when he was young, certainly before he was 14. Her name was Bella, but of which family is unknown. Dante’s father then married Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi and they produced a son, Francesco, and a daughter, Gaetana. Dante’s father died prior to 1283, since at that time Dante, having come into his majority, was able as an orphan to sell a credit owned by his father. The elder Alighieri left his children a modest yet comfortable patrimony of property in Florence and in the country. About this time Dante married Gemma Donati, to whom he had been betrothed since 1277.
Dante’s life was shaped by the long history of conflict between the imperial and papal partisans called, respectively, Ghibellines and Guelfs. Following the middle of the 13th century the antagonisms were brutal and deadly, with each side alternately gaining the upper hand and inflicting gruesome penalties and exile upon the other. In 1260 the Guelfs, after a period of ascendancy, were defeated in the Battle of Montaperti (Inferno X, XXXII), but in 1266 a force of Guelfs, supported by papal and French armies, was able to defeat the Ghibellines at Benevento, expelling them forever from Florence. This meant that Dante grew up in a city brimming with postwar pride and expansionism, eager to extend its political control throughout Tuscany. Florentines compared themselves with Rome and the civilization of the ancient city-states.
Not only did Florence extend its political power, but it was ready to exercise intellectual dominance as well. The leading figure in Florence’s intellectual ascendancy was a returning exile, Brunetto Latini. When in the Inferno Dante describes his encounter with his great teacher, this is not to be regarded as simply a meeting of one pupil with his master but rather as an encounter of an entire generation with its intellectual mentor. Latini had awakened a new public consciousness in the prominent figures of a younger generation, including Guido Cavalcanti, Forese Donati, and Dante himself, encouraging them to put their knowledge and skill as writers to the service of their city or country. Dante readily accepted the Aristotelian assumption that man is a social (political) being. Even in the Paradiso (VIII.117) Dante allows as being beyond any possible dispute the notion that things would be far worse for man were he not a member of a city-state.
A contemporary historian, Giovanni Villani, characterized Latini as the “initiator and master in refining the Florentines and in teaching them how to speak well, and how to guide our republic according to political philosophy [la politica].” Despite the fact that Latini’s most important book, Li Livres dou Trésor (1262–66 The Tresor), was written in French (Latini had passed his years of exile in France), its culture is Dante’s culture it is a repository of classical citation. The first part of Book II contains one of the early translations in a modern European vernacular of Aristotle’s Ethics. On almost every question or topic of philosophy, ethics, and politics Latini freely quotes from Cicero and Seneca. And, almost as frequently, when treating questions of government, he quotes from the Book of Proverbs, as Dante was to do. The Bible as well as the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, as represented in Latini’s work, were the mainstays of Dante’s early culture.
Of these Rome presents the most inspiring source of identification. The cult of Cicero began to develop alongside that of Aristotle Cicero was perceived as not only preaching but as fully exemplifying the intellectual as citizen. A second Roman element in Latini’s legacy to become an important part of Dante’s culture was the love of glory, the quest for fame through a wholehearted devotion to excelling. For this reason, in the Inferno (XV) Latini is praised for instructing Dante in the means by which man makes himself immortal, and in his farewell words Latini commits to Dante’s care his Tresor, through which he trusts his memory will survive.
Dante was endowed with remarkable intellectual and aesthetic self-confidence. By the time he was 18, as he himself says in the Vita nuova, he had already taught himself the art of making verse (chapter III). He sent an early sonnet, which was to become the first poem in the Vita nuova, to the most famous poets of his day. He received several responses, but the most important one came from Cavalcanti, and this was the beginning of their great friendship.
As in all meetings of great minds the relationship between Dante and Cavalcanti was a complicated one. In chapter XXX of the Vita nuova Dante states that it was through Cavalcanti’s exhortations that he wrote his first book in Italian rather than in Latin. Later, in the Convivio, written in Italian, and in De vulgari eloquentia, written in Latin, Dante was to make one of the first great Renaissance defenses of the vernacular. His later thinking on these matters grew out of his discussions with Cavalcanti, who prevailed upon him to write only in the vernacular. Because of this intellectual indebtedness, Dante dedicated his Vita nuova to Cavalcanti—to his best friend (primo amico).
Later, however, when Dante became one of the priors of Florence, he was obliged to concur with the decision to exile Cavalcanti, who contracted malaria during the banishment and died in August 1300. In the Inferno (X) Dante composed a monument to his great friend, and it is as heartrending a tribute as his memorial to Latini. In both cases Dante records his indebtedness, his fondness, and his appreciation of their great merits, but in each he is equally obliged to record the facts of separation. In order to save himself, he must find (or has found) other, more powerful aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual sponsorship than that offered by his old friends and teachers.
One of these spiritual guides, for whom Cavalcanti evidently did not have the same appreciation, was Beatrice, a figure in whom Dante created one of the most celebrated fictionalized women in all of literature. In keeping with the changing directions of Dante’s thought and the vicissitudes of his career, she, too, underwent enormous changes in his hands—sanctified in the Vita nuova, demoted in the canzoni (poems) presented in the Convivio, only to be returned with more profound comprehension in The Divine Comedy as the woman credited with having led Dante away from the “vulgar herd.”
La vita nuova (c. 1293 The New Life) is the first of two collections of verse that Dante made in his lifetime, the other being the Convivio. Each is a prosimetrum—that is, a work composed of verse and prose. In each case the prose is a device for binding together poems composed over about a 10-year period. The Vita nuova brought together Dante’s poetic efforts from before 1283 to roughly 1292–93 the Convivio, a bulkier and more ambitious work, contains Dante’s most important poetic compositions from just prior to 1294 to the time of The Divine Comedy.
The Vita nuova, which Dante called his libello, or small book, is a remarkable work. It contains 42 brief chapters with commentaries on 25 sonnets, one ballata, and four canzoni a fifth canzone is left dramatically interrupted by Beatrice’s death. The prose commentary provides the frame story, which does not emerge from the poems themselves (it is, of course, conceivable that some were actually written for other occasions than those alleged). The story is simple enough, telling of Dante’s first sight of Beatrice when both are nine years of age, her salutation when they are 18, Dante’s expedients to conceal his love for her, the crisis experienced when Beatrice withholds her greeting, Dante’s anguish that she is making light of him, his determination to rise above anguish and sing only of his lady’s virtues, anticipations of her death (that of a young friend, the death of her father, and Dante’s own premonitory dream), and finally the death of Beatrice, Dante’s mourning, the temptation of the sympathetic donna gentile (a young woman who temporarily replaces Beatrice), Beatrice’s final triumph and apotheosis, and, in the last chapter, Dante’s determination to write at some later time about her “that which has never been written of any woman.”
Yet with all of this apparently autobiographical purpose the Vita nuova is strangely impersonal. The circumstances it sets down are markedly devoid of any historical facts or descriptive detail (thus making it pointless to engage in too much debate as to the exact historical identity of Beatrice). The language of the commentary also adheres to a high level of generality. Names are rarely used—Cavalcanti is referred to three times as Dante’s “best friend” Dante’s sister is referred to as “she who was joined to me by the closest proximity of blood.” On the one hand Dante suggests the most significant stages of emotional experience, but on the other he seems to distance his descriptions from strong emotional reactions. The larger structure in which Dante arranged poems written over a 10-year period and the generality of his poetic language are indications of his early and abiding ambition to go beyond the practices of local poets.
We have a look at the opus magna of Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy, before seeing him off to the end of his days and beyond, with the adventures of his corpse
After definitively defeating the Ghibellines, the Florentine Guelphs need new enemies so they split into White and Black Guelphs, catching Dante Alighieri, who had entered politics just a few years before, in a crossfire that will have dire consequences. On a literary level, he starts to get the idea of a sort od mid life crisis travel book…
CliffNotes: On Dante's Divine Comedy
Three separate books, one for each of the three sections:
- James Roberts and Nikki Moustaki's CliffNotes: On Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno.
- CliffNotes: On Dante's Divine Comedy: Purgatory.
- CliffNotes: On Dante's Divine Comedy: Paradise.
- Dante's life and times.
- A summary of the poem's story.
- A list of characters.
- Character analyses of Virgil and Dante.
- Sample critical essays
- A canto-by-canto summary of the contents of each canto, an interpretation, and explanation of references to people of history and mythology.
DANTE ALIGHIERI° (1265), Italy's greatest poet. Dante's Divina Commedia (c. 1307), generally regarded as the outstanding literary work of the Middle Ages, is in three parts: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. From biographical or autobiographical sources it cannot be proved for certain that Dante was in close touch with Jews or was personally acquainted with them. Jews are mentioned in his Divina Commedia mainly as a result of the theological problem posed by their historical role and survival. Such references are purely literary: the term judei or giudei designates "the Jews," a people whose religion differs from Christianity while ebrei denotes "the Hebrews," the people of the Bible. Dante knew no Hebrew and the isolated Hebrew terms which appear in the Commedia – Hallelujah, Hosanna, Sabaoth, El, and Jah – are derived from Christian liturgy or from the scholastic texts of the poet's day. The Commedia contains no insulting or pejorative references to Jews. Although antisemites have given a disparaging interpretation to the couplet: "Be like men and not like foolish sheep, So that the Jew who dwells among you will not mock you" (Paradiso, 5:80), the Jews of Dante's time considered these lines an expression of praise and esteem. In the course of his famous journey through Hell, Dante encounters no Jews among the heretics, usurers, and counterfeiters whose sinful ranks Jews during the Middle Ages were commonly alleged to swell.
In the 19 th century, scholars were convinced that Dante was on terms of friendship with the Hebrew poet *Immanuel of Rome. The latter and one of Dante's friends, Bosone da Gubbio, marked Dante's death by exchanging sonnets and the death of Immanuel gave rise to another exchange of sonnets between Bosone and the poet Cino da Pistoia, in which Dante and Immanuel are mentioned together. Twentieth-century scholars, headed by M.D. (Umberto) Cassuto, showed that there is no basis for the alleged friendship between the two poets, but have proved Immanuel's dependence upon Dante's works. Important points of contact have also been discovered between Dante's conceptions and the views of R. *Hillel b. Samuel of Verona hypotheses have been formulated on the resemblance of the notion of Hebrew as the perfect or original language in the Commedia and in the works of the kabbalist Abraham ⪫ulafia , and in general on the common neoplatonic element in Dante's theoretical and poetical works and in Kabbalah. Moreover, the Questio de aqua et terra probably written by Dante has a precedent in the discussion between Moses Ibn *Tibbon and Jacob ben Sheshet *Gerondi on the same subject a century before. Another parallel to Dante's outlook on the world may be found in the writings and translations of Immanuel's cousin, Judah b. Moses *Romano , who, within a few years of Dante's death, made a *Judeo-Italian version of some philosophical passages from the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, adding his own Hebrew commentary. Italian Jews quickly realized the lyrical and ideological value of the Commedia and an early edition was issued by a Jewish printer at Naples in 1477. Like Petrarch, Dante was widely quoted by Italian rabbis of the Renaissance in their sermons, and even by one or two Jewish scholars in their learned commentaries. The first actual imitation was that of Immanuel of Rome. His Maret ha-Tofet ve-ha-Eden is the 28 th and final section of his Marot (Brescia, 1491). Here Immanuel also describes a journey to the next world, in which he is guided by Daniel, a friend or teacher who, in the opinion of some scholars, is Dante himself. A slight echo of the allegorical vision dealing with the soul's spiritual delight in the afterlife occurs in the Maret ha-Tene, a rhymed prose work by R. ʪhitub b. Isaac of Palermo. Another important work openly inspired by the Commedia was Mikdash Meɺt (written c. 1416), written by R. Moses b. Isaac *Rieti , in terza rima. This poetical meter was used for some decades by Hebrew Italian poets. By the 17 th century Dante's influence on Jewish writers had weakened, and there is only a doubtful connection between the Commedia and Moses *Zacuto 's verse-play Tofteh Arukh (Venice, 1715).
To mark the 600 th anniversary of Dante's death, Samuel David *Luzzatto composed a Hebrew sonnet that became famous in scholarly circles throughout Europe. Many attempts have been made to translate the Divina Commedia into Hebrew. A translation of the first part by S. Formiggini was published in 1869 S. Sabbadini's Hebrew version of the other two parts remains in manuscript. Other partial translations were made into a more poetic and comprehensible Hebrew by Lelio della Torre (1871), V. Castiglioni (1912), E. Schreiber (1924), and V. *Jabotinsky (Inferno, chaps. 1, 3, 5, 33, in Ha-Tekufah, 19 (1923), 163). Immanuel *Olsvanger produced the first complete Hebrew translation of the Commedia (1943, 1953, 1956). Olsvanger also translated Dante's Vita Nuova (1957) while his De monarchia was translated into Hebrew by H. Merviah (1961).
Sources:F. Servi, Dante e gli Ebrei (1893) U. Cassuto, Dante e Manoello (1921, Heb. tr. 1965) J. Schirmann, in: YMḤSI, 1 (1933), 132 J. Sermoneta, in: Romanica et Occidentalia, Etudes dຝiພs à la mémoire de Hiram Peri (1963), 23 idem, in: Studi Medievali, 3 rd series, 6 fasc. 2 (1965), 3 G. Rinaldi, in: Lɺlighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca, 7:2 (1966), 25 A. Cronbach, in: HUCA, 35 (1964), 193 R. Mondolfi, Gli Ebrei. Qual luogo oltremondano sia per essi nella Commedia di Dante (1904) H. Rheinfelder, in: Judenthum im Mittelalter (1966), 442 idem, Dante e la Bibbia (1988) U. Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (1995) B. Chiesa, in: Henoch, 23:2𠄳 (2001), 325 D. Bregman, in: Prooftexts, 23:1 (2003), 18 G. Battistoni, Dante, Verona e la cultura ebraica (2004) D. Stow, Dante e la mistica ebraica (2004).
[Joseph Baruch Sermoneta / Alessandro Guetta (2 nd ed.)]
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Dante’s Literary Career
- In 1304, presumably in Bologna, he attempted to unite Italian territories through a unifying Italian language using the Latin treatise, De Vulgari Eloquentia or The Eloquent Vernacular. Although left unfinished, it became influential.
- In late 1306, Dante stayed in Padua after the expulsion of Florentine exiles to Bologna.
- In 1308, after the election of Henry of Luxembourg as emperor Henry VII, Dante wrote three books of Da Monarchia. He described how the emperor’s power should not be based on the pope, rather, descended directly from God. Sometime later, members of Florentine government threatened the throne and permanently banned Dante in Florence.
- It was believed that he started writing The Divine Comedy during his time of exile. In 1312, Henry VII survived the threats and was named the Holy Roman Emperor.
- By 1314, he completed the Inferno, set in hell. In general, The Divine Comedy was an allegory of human life, giving warning to corrupt members of society as they got to see the journey of Christians to the afterlife.
- It was believed that Dante’s first two journeys in the poem (hell and purgatory) were influenced by Virgil, while the way through heaven (Paradiso) was inspired by his love for Beatrice. Many are certain that Dante started writing The Divine Comedy the moment he was sent into exile. It was set from the night of Good Friday until the Wednesday after Easter.
- The poem consists of 100 cantos in terza rima measurement and composed of 14,233 lines. Dante’s work was distinct from Homer and Virgil as he wrote his own journey to salvation with real people living during his time.
Dante Alighieri was a man firmly enmeshed in the world he found himself in -- thirteenth to fourteenth century Italy. Too early for the Renaissance, there was still a great deal of art and literature being created and fostered by the fashionable set. If nothing else it would take their mind off politics, an intricate and often bloody pastime in a world much smaller than our own -- local affairs having corresponding more import. As we saw in relation to Vlad Dracula last issue, Europe was still under the influence of the decaying Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church being the other major (often competing) power block.
This background is more than just detail from the poet's life, it permeates his own experiences and the writings based on them. The Comedy spends a lot of its time talking about the situation in Florence, and one interpretation has it as almost a treatise on the way to a fair and just political system. It has other interpretations, most of which Dante had a firm grasp of -- the journey of a soul to its redemption, the search through hell to find true love. It is a carefully juggled symbolic and allegorical work whose auto-biographical aspects are only another means to a complex end. A quick look at Dante's life, however, will certainly start to explain some of the poem's concerns.
Dante was born in the city-state of Florence, in Tuscany, Italy, sometime during May-June, 1265. He was the son of Alighiero Alighieri and Bella, born into a reasonably influential family. Both his parents would die by the time Dante was twelve, but he continued under the care of a stepmother. His family were Guelfs, one of two parties that defined a lot of the politics in Florence at the time. The Guelf versus Ghibelline conflict was, in some senses, simply that of two political parties -- the Guelfs (under the slogan 'Civic Liberty') represented indigenous Italians, including minor nobility and the middle-classes, and were essentially pro-Church, whereas the Ghibellines, representing the Aristocrats, upheld the authority of the emperor. It also went a lot deeper than that, involving family feuds, territorial claims and even the other European powers, who would lend their support to one or the other based on wider politicking. This conflict is not so important to us, though in the early years of Dante's life the battle was raging fiercely throughout Tuscany. In 1260 the province was under Ghibelline rule, by 1267 they had been driven out, and Guelfs ruled the area for many years. What is important is it illustrates two points about the poet -- his free-thinking nature was shown in that, while he cherished many of the traits of his Guelf heritage, he was also drawn to the Ghibelline princeliness, their patronage of art and learning, the public spirit of some of their leaders. Deeper than this, he also held a great distrust for the current papal system, and though a devout Catholic he loathed the avarice, corruption and political manoeuvring displayed by those at the top of the hierarchy. The second point comes out when in the late 1280s the Ghibelline menace grew again from the city of Arezzo and a number of Tuscan cities united to declare war. Dante Alighieri rode in the first rank of the powerful army, being, as he wrote, 'no novice in arms' (the Florentines won, by the way. Dante's division was broken by the initial charge, but managed to rally and stand firm).
A more important division existed within the Guelf ranks itself, a family feud that had gotten way out of hand. The family consisted of two warring branches, descendants of the two wives of Cancelliere, who gave the family its name. One wife was named Bianca and thus her side was called Bianchi (or Whites), so the opposition called themselves, naturally enough, Neri (or Blacks). At the turn of the century the White versus Black dispute moved to Florence, where two jealous families took opposing sides, it became a brawl and then a riot and progressed further so that the city was no less than two armed camps. At the time Dante was both a public official (a member of the Priors) and a White. To cut a long story short, this ended up getting him into all sorts of trouble, and he was brought up for trial, along with four other prominent Whites, on (undoubtedly trumped up) charges of fraud and corruption. He was exiled from Florence, and any return threatened severe consequences: 'such a one shall be burned with fire till he be dead'.
While the political side of the man can only be emphasised so far, it has led to a number of complaints about The Comedy -- best summed up by Dan Simmons in the story Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell. The story concerns one Vanni Fucci of Pistoia, imprisoned in Hell for the crime of theft -- and given a chance to appear on an Evangelical television show to air his grievances -- 'But I didn't go to Dante's Hell just because of one little robbery about as common then as knocking over a convenience store today. No. I have prime billing in the Seventh Bolgia of the Eighth Circle because I was a Black and because Dante was a White and the unfairness of it all pisses me off'  .
Various people have made the same accusation, just as some people defend him of the charge of political and personal favouritism in his placement of actual characters in Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. There is no need here to go into the arguments, but I would like to say that he can hardly be blamed for letting his preferences be found in his work.
The is at least one very blatant piece of favouritism in the poem, one, I believe, that was always meant to be recognised as such. This was the inclusion of Beatrice Portinari, the 'worthier spirit' that would lead Dante through Paradise, after the poet Virgil had shown him the sights of the Inferno and Purgatory. Beatrice was indeed a real person, the daughter of a wealthy Florentine family. Dante first met her at a party held by her father, and later writes that at first sight his heart trembled and said 'behold a god stronger than I that is come to bear rule over me'. Love indeed had smitten him, one that would last him throughout his life, no less strong for the fact that, at this first meeting, she was eight years and four months old, he was almost nine.
The affair was both memorable and one-sided. The girl first acknowledged Dante at the age of eighteen, speaking to him in the street, though later she would refuse to speak to him over some rumours circulating. At one time they were at a party together and (or so Dante believed) she made fun of him, grieving him deeply. She died in 1290 (at about the age of twenty-five) and it seemed to the poet that 'the whole city of Florence was widowed by her death' . Marriage was in those days a matter of political alliance and he apparently did not look on her as a possible wife (it was a couple of years later that Dante himself was married, to one Gemma Donati (and, yes, one of his children was named Beatrice)), though he never admitted in his writings about her that she had married a banker in 1287 (with this sort of relationship it's lucky he went and wrote one of the world's great poems about her, rather than, say, cutting off her arms and legs and putting her in a box).
And a third aspect of the man, over and above his checkered career as a politician and his lesser success as a lover, is, naturally enough, Dante the poet. There were a great many young poets in Florence at the time, but he was soon acknowledged as one of the most promising of them. Before his exile he had published La Vita Nuova (The New Life), a collection of poems in which he also candidly talks about his relation to the now-deceased Beatrice, and Il Canzoniere, a collection of lyrics. At the end of that first work, he says that he will write no more of Beatrice until, with much study, 'I hope to write of her what never yet was written of any woman'. This would come to be, but he could not have known the circumstances under which it would be fulfilled. And after his exile, the tone of his writing began to change.
A parallel can be made to another disenchanted politician of Florence, some two hundred years later, one Niccoló Machiavelli. He was also caught up in the power-play within the city-state of his birth and the outside world, became a public official (a diplomat, mainly, a profession Dante never seemed too good at) and was dismissed from office and his chosen profession during all the to-ing and fro-ing (in this case the Spanish Medici repossession of Florence in 1512). He took up writing in earnest at this point, and published a body of work that gave us the word Machiavellian to mean political deviousness.
Dante's work could be seen to arise from similar circumstances. He certainly applied himself to political debate, believing that the Roman Empire should regain its power as a stabilising force in Europe, with the Papal system having no earthly power, but in place to provide an atmosphere conducive to good government. He also realised that law (and perhaps moral right) extended only as far as the power to enforce it.
He wrote the unfinished De Vulgari Eloquentia (Writing in the Vulgar Tongue), De Monarchia (Of Monarchy, his political commentaries) and Il Convivio (The Banquet), a book of verse wherein he describes his earlier work as juvenile, making way for more adult and masculine writing. Dorothy Sayers, in , describes the book as possessed of a cold passion, of nobility without charm, and not altogether Christian.
Dante was wandering now, penniless and bitter. The chance was given to him, after fifteen years, to return to Florence with the payment of a heavy fine and humiliating penance. He refused, saying 'this is the reward of an innocence known to all men!'. He saw only corruption in the world of politics, and only corruption in individual man.
The Inferno is set over Easter in the year 1300, before the exile, at the height of Dante's power and influence.
But unlike Machiavelli, Dante refound his faith, and his final, great work is a poem of transition. No-one's quite sure when the poem was started (and it has been suggested there was the beginning of a very different version written before the exile itself), but the Inferno was first widely available around 1314 -- written in vulgar Italian, for the common people. It was not until his death, of fever in 1321, that the poem was released in completed form.
He spent his last years in peace, still in poverty but supported in the artistic community of the town of Ravenna. He died there and Florence, now realising the worth of its former citizen requested the body. They were refused -- repeatedly, even into the nineteenth century, and indeed the body had to be hidden at one point to foil a Papal order for the move.
Dorothy Sayers, again, describes Dante Alighieri as 'the supreme poet of joy'. It is not a universal classification, if for no other reason than the superb description of Hell he gives, along the way.
A Note on Translations
Through me you reach the city of despair
Through me you reach eternity of grief
Through me you reach the region of the lost
Justice it was moved my high architect
Divine omnipotence created me
Transcendent wisdom and primordial love
Before me only endless things were made
And I too shall endure without an end
You that enter here, abandon hope
The most one can do with passages like the one about Benaco, or the Last Voyage of Ulysses or the heart-breaking little vision of the brooks of the Casentino. is to erect, as best one can, a kind of sign-post to indicate: "Here is beauty make haste to learn Italian, so that you may read it for yourselves" .
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate!
[ 117] The Comedy of Dante Alighieri The Florentine: Cantica I: HELL, by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Books, London, 1949.
[ 118] Inferno (1988), trans Tom Phillips, p Denis Wigman and Kees Kasander, d Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips, for Channel Four Television. A powerful evocation with reworked symbolism, made for TV but wonderful nonetheless (Edge of Darkness fans are in for a treat: Bob Peck plays Dante, and Joanne Whalley, his daughter in Edge, plays Beatrice).
[ 119] The Prince, Niccoló Machiavelli, Penguin Books, London, 1961, c1500s. Not much to do with hell at all, really, though in certain circles the words Machiavellian and diabolical have become synonymous.
[ 120] Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living in Hell, Dan Simmons, in Dark Visions, Douglas E Winter (ed), Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1989.
[ 121] Tales of Love and Death: Dan Simmons, Leigh Blackmore, in The Australian SF Writers' News, Steven Paulsen (ed), number 6, Chimaera Publications, Belgrave, June 1993. In this interview Simmons says The Hollow Man is dealing with Dante's Inferno, and thus Vanni Fucci's inclusion. I didn't spot it myself.
[ 122] Sandman issue 3: A Hope in Hell, Neil Gaiman, DC Comics, New York, 1988. The universe of DC comics has a complex version of the infernal afterlife that is a cross between 'Hell is what you believe it to be' and a fiery abyss full of demons. Details can be found sporadically in issues of the like of Hellblazer, Sandman and The Demon (the Sandman arc Season of Mists is worth noting, in which Lucifer abdicates and empties the Pit, handing the Key of Hell to Dream). One of the most interesting aspects of this version is the splitting of roles between Lucifer, the fallen Angel and figurehead of the realm, and Satan, an original inhabitant who now handles the practical side of rule along with Beelzebub and Azathoth. Note that this was more due to the merging of different plot-lines than any deep theological significance.
[ 123] The Little Book of Smethers and other Stories, Lord Dunsany, Remploy, 1978, c19.
* Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
* The Gates of Hell was an unfinished work by this French impressionist sculptor, Auguste Rodin. His well-known figure The Thinker was actually the projected lintel piece to crown the project.
* 'I hear my ill spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat. I myself am hell. Nobody's here--' Skunk Hour Robert Lowell