Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. At that time, Florence was not part of a princely kingdom, but run as a commune, or run by municipal councils. These harken back to their republican past and the members of the council call themselves consuls. Despite this, this was a time of great upheaval, and the Alighieri family was intimately involved in the internal turmoil. During this time, two rival factions were jockeying for power in Florence- the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs supported the Pope and the Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor.
In this background, Dante grew up, a Guelph on his father’s side and a Ghibelline on his mother’s side. Dante was betrothed at age twelve to Gemma Donati, and the pair married in 1285. However, his heart belonged to another woman. He had met Beatrice Portinari when she was only nine years old and fell in love at first sight. Since he was betrothed to another woman, this was only expressed in the acceptable terms of courtly love, which was chaste and unrequited. Sadly, Beatrice died unexpectedly in 1290. Despite only knowing each other for five years, this relationship made a mark on young Dante. In 1295, he published his first book of verse, Vita Nuova or New Life, which tells the tale of his tragic love for Beatrice. This book is notable since it was published in Italian not the usual Latin used for scholarly works.
With Beatrice gone, Dante took a more active interest in politics to fill his time. Florence was undergoing a more turbulent time than usual. The Guelphs had the upper hand, but had divided into two factions- Bianchi and Neri or white and black. Dante ran afoul of the Black Guelphs, who were favored by Pope Boniface VIII. Lots of political intrigues happened, but to make a long story short Dante was exiled from his beloved Florence. He knocked around Siena, Arezzo and Forli trying to get home, but never succeeded. In 1304 he turned up in Bologna, but was expelled with the other Florentine refugees that same year. Reports have him in Padua and Paris, but don’t pick up his whereabouts again until 1308. At this time, Henry of Luxembourg took the throne as Holy Roman Emperor, and Dante saw a chance to get back home. He wrote three books supporting the emperor, “De Monarchia”, which said that right of kings came directly from God and did not rest on the favor of the Pope. Unfortunately, Henry’s popularity was slipping and the slide was being aided by those in power in Florence. Dante wrote a scathing work against them and got added to the permanently banned list for his pains. Dante could never set foot in Florence again on pain of death. He was never to see Florence or his wife again.
However, during this time he got the idea for his three book masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. The first book “Inferno” was finished by 1314, and is by far the most famous of the three books. Dante hit upon the ingenious idea of writing a book and putting those who wronged him in hell. This is brilliant, and flipped my life around when I first read it, but that is another story. The entire Divine Comedy was an allegory for human life as shown by a journey through the stages of the Christian Afterlife. In the Inferno, Dante is led by Virgil, who is the symbol of reason, through hell so he can overcome his sin. Virgil has been sent by Beatrice, who is in heaven praying for Dante’s success. Once in hell he travels through the nine circles, and sees all of his political enemies as well as figures from mythology and history in various disgusting and painful positions as punishment for their sins in this life. No detail is spared as he places flatterers in a river of excrement, murders in rivers of blood and traitors in ice. For Pope Boniface VIII, whose party was responsible for his exile, he has another pope prophesize that he will be in circle 8 buried in a fiery hole for simony, or the abuse of power in the Church. He would have been put in hell, but he wasn’t dead yet. Just keeping a spot warm for him. Take that for keeping him out of his home. The damage to the reputation of some families he put in the Inferno took its toll. Countless churches and chapels had to be built to make restitution in the eyes of the public.
Purgatorio and Paradiso are frankly less interesting, but important works none the less. Virgil leads Dante up Mount Purgatory in Purgatorio, then he meets Beatrice who leads him through the nine levels of Heaven in Paradiso. Along the way, Dante conquers his sins and is able to enter the empyrean, where God resides, and meets countless intellectuals and important people of the day. I have always thought the Inferno was much more interesting, however, so I’m not sure what that says about me.
These were groundbreaking as Dante maintained his commitment to writing in the vernacular, or courtly Italian. Since most people were more familiar with this than Latin, these writings became extremely popular. It has been considered an important work since 1400, and defines major portions of Western literature. Countless authors have been influenced including T.S. Elliot.
The ultimate irony? When Dante died in 1321 he was buried in Ravenna because he could not go home. Now he is a literary superstar, so to speak, Florence has been trying to get his bones back so he can rest in his home city. Ravenna has refused up to the present day. Want some aloe for that burn Florence?
Sources available on request