DANTE ALIGHIERI – THE LIFE
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.
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
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.
DANTE’S LIFE IN EXILE
From 1301 to 1311
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 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.