DANTE'S EARLY YEARS
The Alighieri family, members of the Florentine minor nobility who boasted of being a "plant from a Roman seed" (Inferno XV and following), originated from a branch of the powerful house of Elisei (Paradise XV, 136), founded by a certain Aldighiera from the Po Valley, the bride of Cacciaguida, who participated in the second Crusade, during which he died. Dante's grandfather Bellincione and his father Alighiero II were in the "lending" business. While we know that Bellincione took part in the Councils of the commune, the Alighieri were not important enough among the Guelphs to be sent into exile after the battle of Montaperti, won by the Ghibellines. Even though many Florentine Guelphs were exiled between 1260 and 1266, Dante's parents remained in Florence, so that he was able to say that he was "born and raised by the lovely Arno River and the great city" (Inferno XXIII, 93-94). Dante makes very little mention of his close relatives; we know that he was baptized in "beautiful San Giovanni" (Inferno XIX, 17), a place imbued with deep meaning which would always be in his thoughts, a poetic place which for him symbolized Florence, where he hoped to return to be crowned as poet. His mother died when he was a young child, and he spent his childhood in the company of an older sister, the "young and gentle lady… who was closely related to me" (La Vita Nuova XXIII). He had a brother, Francesco, and a sister, Tana (Gaetana), born to his father's second wife Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi.
As a young child he studied grammar and rhetoric and was familiar with the work of the major Latin authors. It is obvious that Dante had a schoolmaster; we know from Villani's Cronaca that literacy was widespread even just a few years after the poet's death, and young Florentine boys were taught commercial and intellectual subjects. A "romanus doctor puerorum" of the San Martino al Vescovo district held classes in 1277 in the Alighieri houses. Even though sporadic, the instruction he received in rhetoric, literature, politics and civics under the great Brunetto Latini, magistrate, ambassador and official notary in 1267 of the Florentine Republic who died in 1294 and is buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, was fundamental. Latini belonged politically to the Guelph party and, as a militant Guelph, he was sentenced to exile after their defeat at Montaperti. He took refuge in France, where he lived from 1260 to 1266 and wrote in French some of the most important works of his time. A rhetorician, philosopher and at the same time an advocate of a renewed encyclopedic kind of knowledge based on French cultural elements, and a promoter of a completely "civil" humanism, he was quite properly called by Giovanni Villani "great philosopher… supreme master of rhetoric… beginner and master in refining the Florentines and in teaching them how to speak well, and how to guide and rule our republic according to policy." From the teachings of the author of the Tesoretto, Favolello and Li livres dou Tresor, Dante began acquiring French culture, as evidenced by Detto d'Amore and the later Fiore (a reworking in 232 sonnets of part of the Roman de la Rose), works which are now attributed to Dante. In the meantime, starting with the Sicilian School, the writing of poetry in the vernacular was spreading. Thus, during Dante's youth the horizon of Florentine poetry was expanding rapidly, as demonstrated by Codice Vaticano 3793 (one of the oldest illustrious collections of poems), Codice Palatino 418, and Codice Laurenziano Rediano 9 in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. If we look at the composition of this collection of thirteenth-century poets, obviously excluding the poems that would later be called the dolce stil nuovo, we see that of almost all the works only a very small percentage is not by Florentine or at least Tuscan poets. The majority of the poems are by Florentines or poets, such as Fra Guittone d'Arezzo, who lived in close contact with Florence. these poets' literary and artistic efforts reached their height right when Dante was opening his mind and heart to poetry. But he soon broke away from these models and, with his mastery of the dolce stil nuovo and the poems in praise of Beatrice (later commented in the Vita Nuova), he became aware of the distance between him and the ranks of vernacular poets of earlier generations.