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.
DANTE’S POLITICAL LIFE
From the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines to his death sentence
At the beginning of the eleventh century, in Germany two families came into conflict, a situation which would soon have a crucial influence on political life in the cities on the Italian peninsula: the Bavarian House of Welf (which became Guelfo in Italian) and the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen (whose castle was Waiblingen, hence Ghibelline).
The Guelphs supported the politics of the papacy and the communes and in various ways opposed the supremacy of the emperor. In 1215 Frederick II of Swabia was crowned king of Germany and five years later was proclaimed emperor. In Florence at the time, internal discord had already arisen between the long-standing and still powerful representatives of the urban landowning nobility and the vigorously expanding merchant class, flanked by the artisans and, for economic reasons, the working class (popolo minuto).
The killing of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti by the Amidei family and their allies exasperated the existing split between the ruling groups of the “societas militum.” To this already precarious situation for Florence was added the open conflict between the pope and the emperor, which radicalized the formation of two factions in the city, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, with their tensions heightened by deep underlying economic interests.
FROM THE GOVERNMENT OF THE PRIMO POPOLO TO THE ORDINANCES OF JUSTICE
After the unexpected death of Frederick II in December 1250, the Ghibelline magnates, who with the powerful Uberti family and their allies, had dominated Florence in the 1240s, were deposed and the Primo Popolo (First People) took over the city government. A Captain of the People was placed alongside the aristocratic podestà (chief administrative official); his political activity was aimed at achieving a widespread, durable peace that would enable greater economic growth.
The appearance on the Italian political scene of Frederick II’s illegitimate son Manfredi relaunched the Ghibelline party also in Florence. Thus, the Florentine defeat in the battle of Montaperti in 1260, which “turned the Arbia red” with blood (Inferno X, 86) led to the fall of the government of the Primo Popolo but at the same time produced the definitive fusion between the Guelph party and the common people.
The Angevin intervention in southern Italy dashed the hopes of the imperial side. Manfredi was defeated and died in battle at Benevento on 26 February 1266. The following year, the Ghibellines seemed to regain new strength after the arrival in Italy of the last descendant of the Hohenstaufens, young Conradin, but he was defeated at Tagliacozzo on 23 August 1268, taken prisoner and then beheaded in Naples. The return to Florence in April 1267 of the Guelph exiles with the support of the Angevin knights led to the definitive expulsion of the Ghibellines and the formation of a government by the Guelphs, who would rule Florence until the peace of Cardinal Latino and the assumption of power in 1282 of the common people of Florence through the Priory of the Guilds. This new organism, by means of the Ordinances of Justice in 1293, excluded from government the group of landowning aristocrats who, despite adjustments in 1295, remained to a large extent out of power.
WHITE AND BLACK GUELPHS
Within the Guelph party, two opposing factions formed: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. The Whites were tied to the Cerchi family of rich merchants (the “new people”), while the Blacks were bound to the Donati, a proud noble family. The Calendimaggio skirmish in which Ricoverino de’ Cerchi was injured marked the beginning of open conflict between the two factions.
Donati and his allies, the Black side, supported the plans for expansion into Tuscany of Pope Boniface VIII, who interfered in Florence’s internal battles, sending to the city as peacemakers first Cardinal Acquasparta and later, on 1 November 1301, Charles of Valois, the brother of the king of France, Philip the Fair. Returning to the city with him were the Donati ringleaders who had been sent into exile, and a real “dominion” of the Black side arose with podestà Cante di Gabrielli, from Gubbio, and later Folcieri da Calvoli.
They initiated trials and sentences against their adversaries, and in early 1302 the White side was eliminated. Against this dramatic backdrop the personal fate of Dante played out; besides belonging to the Whites, he strongly opposed the expansionistic aims of Boniface VIII.
DANTE THE PRIOR
After participating as a young man in the Battle of Campaldino against Arezzo (11 June 1289) and two months later in the military operations against the Pisan castle of Caprona (Inferno XXI, 95), Dante took part in the political life of the Guelph commune of Florence. In keeping with the Ordinances of Justice, also the noblemen who were not knights could hold public office as long as they were enrolled, even if only nominally, in a guild. Dante joined the guild of physicians and apothecaries (“Medici e Speziali”), which counted among its members some of the most avant-garde minds of the culture of the time. From November 1295 to April 1296 he served on the special council of the Captain of the People. As a member of the White faction, Dante was appointed ambassador to San Gimignano on 7 May 1300 and elected a prior from 15 June to 15 August of that same year. During his time in office he devoted his efforts above all to having the commune pursue a policy of independence from the hegemonic aims of Pope Boniface VIII.
DANTE’S AMBASSADORIAL MISSION TO ROME AND SENTENCE
When Charles of Valois was already at the Florence city gates, sent there by Boniface VIII ostensibly as a peacemaker but really to favor the Donati faction, the city government (the Signoria) appointed Dante as part of the delegation sent to Rome to discuss matters with the pope, even though Dante had manifestly supported a policy hostile to the pope’s. He left for Rome in the second half of October 1301, never to return to Florence.
Charles of Valois entered Florence on 1 November 1301 and with his arrival the most hot-headed leaders of the Black side soon re-entered the city. Trials and sentences against the Whites immediately began, accusing them of “acting like Ghibellines” and of administrative fraud in public office (corruption).
On 21 January 1302, Cante dei Gabrielli, the podestà appointed by the Blacks, condemned Dante, who had opposed the pope’s aims, for corruption, sentencing him to a fine of 5,000 florins and two years of exile outside Tuscany. As Dante was absent and thus considered in default, on 10 March his punishment was changed to a death sentence.
DANTE’S LIFE IN EXILE
From 1301 to 1311
Dante was hit with this sentence on his way back to Florence from Rome, and he joined forces with many other exiles, White Guelphs and Ghibellines, who were organizing an armed reentry into Florence. On 8 June 1302 we find him as one of the signers, at San Godenzo, of an agreement which committed them, in exchange for substantial aid, to repay the Ubaldini for damages incurred because of the war against Florence. In 1303, in an effort to recruit allies to the exiles’ cause, Dante went to Forlì to see Scarpetta degli Ordelaffi and to Verona to see Bartolomeo della Scala.
After Boniface VIII’s death in October 1303, the new pope Benedict XII sent Cardinal Niccolò da Prato to Florence in March 1304 to act as a peacemaker. In the name of the White Guelphs, Dante wrote him a conciliatory letter aimed at negotiating the reentry of the exiles into Florence. But when the intransigence of the Blacks wrecked their hopes, the exiles took recourse to arms; however, the disastrous day (20 June 1304) at Lastra a Signa on the outskirts of Florence marked the end of any concrete possibility of going back home.
During these events, Dante, after fierce political clashes with the other exiles, had already “formed a party of one” (Paradise XVII, 69). Little is known about Dante’s wanderings in these years. In all probability he was in Bologna between 1304 and 1306. In that city he started writing two works dense with doctrine: the Convivio in the vernacular and De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin.
Both texts reveal a further broadening of his literary, cultural, civic, and political perspectives. With them Dante wanted to increase his reputation as a scholar, with the aim of having his sentence revoked; his nostalgia for his distant homeland and hopes for return imbue both works, in heartfelt accents, even if Dante now proclaims himself in ringing tones to be a citizen of the world. The two treatises were interrupted both because of the expulsion of the Florentine exiles from Bologna in 1306 and because he was now applying himself to his vaster plan for a major work of poetry.
Reliable information about Dante’s next stops is sparse: on 6 October he was in Sarzana to negotiate peace between Franceschino Malaspina and the bishop of Luni; in 1308 he was probably in Lucca, and later in the Casentino area, from where he sent to Martello Malaspina the song Amor da che convien accompanied by a declarative epistle. It was probably there that news reached him of the rise to the imperial throne of Henry VII of Luxembourg in 1308 (his name became Arrigo for the Florentines).
Dante had reached the conviction that the absence of an emperor had enable papal integralism to prevail and thus the ruin in Florence of the Whites’ cause. This was the origin of his Epistle V, of 1310, in which he exalts Pope Clement V’s intention to crown the new emperor in Rome, and the two subsequent political epistles, of 1311, addressed to the Florentines and the emperor, aimed at hurrying the process along and removing all obstacles to Henry VII’s descent into Italy.
From 1311 to his death
The period of Henry VII’s descent into Italy is in all probability the time when the Latin treatise De Monarchia was written, attempting to demonstrate the necessity of a monarch for the world’s wellbeing, as well as the need for the emperor to be independent from the pope. When Henry VII died in Buonconvento on 24 August 1313, Dante’s hopes to return to Florence were definitively dashed. After staying for some time in Tuscany, perhaps with Uguccione della Faggiuola in Lucca, towards 1316 Dante returned to Verona as a guest of Cangrande della Scala who, as imperial vicar, was implementing his bold plan to create in northern Italy an extensive and powerful Ghibelline State.
The last three epistles were written in 1314-1316: Epistle XI addressed to the Italian cardinals gathered in a conclave after the death of Clement V (June 1314); number XII to a Florentine friend, in which he refuses the amnesty granted to the exiles but with humiliating conditions attached (May 1315); and number XIII, written in 1316, in which the poet dedicates to Cangrande della Scala the canticle of Paradise, which he had just begun, and offers him a sample and a commentary, together with a very important general plan for the Comedy. Leaving Verona around 1318, Dante spent the last period of his life in Ravenna, in serene and undisturbed quiet, as the guest of Guido Novello da Polenta.
Here he finished his major masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, begun around 1308 as a vast fresco presenting, in poetic images, the most secret adventures of his soul, his pains and hopes, the violent, lasting hates but also the loving and confident certainties of a poet and a believer, and at the same time affirming, in an exemplary manner, through the continuous judging of the men of his time and human events and endeavors, a precise moral and political conception of the world within the sphere of the ends for which God made mankind, in the dual order of Nature and Grace.
A brief sojourn in Verona is testified by the Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, a scholastic debate on a favorite topic among academics (if water in some places could be higher than the land), discussed in that city in January 1320. In Ravenna, finally, he composed two responsive eclogues in Latin to Giovanni del Virgilio, who exhorted the poet to write a work in Latin verse on a historical topic and invited him to Bologna, promising him the laurel crown of poets. Sent by Guido da Polenta as an ambassador to Venice to settle a dispute with their powerful neighbor, on his way home he came down with malarial fever.
The poet who had only recently finished writing the canticle of Paradise died during the night between 13 and 14 September 1321, leaving Italy and the world his Comedy, which those who came after him judged to be divine.