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The greatest Italian poet and one of the most important writers of European literature. Dante is best known for the epic poem COMMEDIA, c. 1310-14, later named LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. It has profoundly affected not only the religious imagination but all subsequent allegorical creation of imaginary worlds in literature. Dante spent much of his life traveling from one city to another. This had perhaps more to do with the restless times than his wandering character or fixation on the Odyssey. However, his Commedia can also be called a spiritual travel book.
"It were a shameful thing if one should rhyme under the semblance of metaphor or rhetorical similitude, and afterwards, being questioned thereof, should be unable to rid his words of such semblance, unto their right understanding." (from Vita Nuova, c. 1293)
Dante Alighieri was born into a Florentine family of noble ancestry. Little is known about Dante's childhood. His mother, Bella degli Abati, died when he was seven years old. His father, Alighiero II, made his living by money-lending and renting of property. After the death of his wife he remarried, but died in the early 1280s, before the future poet reached manhood. Brunetto Latini, a man of letters and a politician, became a father figure for Dante, but later in his Commedia Dante placed Latini in Hell, into the seventh circle, among those who were guilty of "violence against nature" - sodomy.
Dante received a thorough education in both classical and Christian literature. At the age of 12 he was promised to his future wife, Gemma Donati. Dante had already fallen in love with another girl whom he called Beatrice. She was 9 years old. Years later Dante met Beatrice again. He had become interested in writing verse, and although he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems. One of his early sonnets Dante sent to the poet Guido Cavalcanti, which started their friendship. Dante also dedicated his first book to Cavalcanti. The work, LA VITA NUOVA (1292), celebrated Dante's love for Beatrice. The nature of his love had its roots in the medieval concept of "courtly love" and the idealization of women. According to another theory, Beatrice was actually a symbol of 'Santa Sapienza', which united secret societies of the day. Harold Bloom in The Western Canon (1994) sees Beatrice as Dante's greatest muse, his invention, who saved him "by giving him his greatest image for poetry, and he saved her from oblivion, little as she may have wanted such salvation.
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Dante married in 1285 Gemma Donati but his ideal lady and inspiration for his poetry was Beatrice Portinari. She married Simone dei Bardi in 1287; she was his second wife. When Dante was asked why he still continued unhappily to love her, he answered: "Ladies, the end of my love was indeed the greeting of this lady, of whom you are perhaps thinking, and in that greeting lay my beatitude, for it was the end of all my desires. But because it pleased her to deny it to me, my Lord Love in his mercy has placed all my beatitude in that which cannot fail me." Beatrice died in June 1290, at the age of 24. After Beatrice's death, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. From Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae and the writings of Thomas Aquinas he found much consolation and intellectual stimulation.
In 1289 in the Florentine army Dante participated in a battle against the Arentines. He also entered politics and joined the White (Bianchi) Guelphs, one of the rival factions within the Guelph party. In 1295 he entered the Guild of member Apothecaries, to which philosophers could belong, and which opened for him the doors to public office. Dante served the commune in various councils and was ambassador to San Gimignano in 1300 and then to Rome. In June 1300 he was elected a prior, and the following year he was appointed superintendent of roads and road repair.
"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."
When the Black (Neri) Guelphs, who had the pope's support, ascended to power, Dante was exiled. The White Guelphs were condemned to death by burning should they ever be caught again in Florence. They soon made an alliance with the Ghibelline party and attempted several unsuccessful attacks on Florence. The White Guelphs'hopes ended with the death (1313) of the emperor Henry VII, who they had hoped would reunite Germany and Italy. On November 1, 1301, Charles of Valois entered Florence with two thousand horsemen and a new set of priors was elected. Dante was charged with financial corruption in January 1302 and some months later he was condemned to death by burning. "The blame will fall upon the injured side / As always," Dante wrote later. Gemma Donati, by whom Dante had two sons and one or two daughters, did not accompany the poet into exile. In Commedia Dante repeatedly condemns the Popes for their involvement in politics. Pope Boniface VIII had invited Charles of Valois to Italy. Dante argued in Monarchia, that there should be one supreme ruler, the Emperor, not the Pope, as during the reign of Augustus.
After 1302 Dante never saw his home town again, but found shelter in various Italian cities and with such rulers as Ordelaffi of Forli, the Scaligeri of Verona, and the Malaspina of Lunigiana. Dante lived his remaining years in the courts of the northern Italy princes. During his exile, he started to write his Commedia, a long story-poem through the three worlds of the afterlife, under the patronage of the Ghibelline leaders. About 1320 Dante made his final home in Ravenna, where he died on the night of September 13-14, 1321. His body was brought to the church of San Francisco. Shortly after he died, Dante was accused of Averroism and his book, De Monarchia, was burned by the order of Pope John XXII. Franciscan monks hid Dante's remains, when Pope Leo X decided in 1519 to deliver them in Florence to Michelangelo, who planned to construct a glorious tomb. Again in 1677 Dante's remains were moved, and in 1865 construction workers rediscovered them accidentally.
"How bitter another's bread is, thou shalt know
By tasting it; and how hard to the feet
Another's stairs are, up and down to go."
(from The Divine Comedy)
Dante's years of exile 1301- 1321 were productive. He wrote DE VULGARI ELOQUENTIA (1304-07), a treatise on his native language. In it he urged that the courtly Italian, used for amatory lyrics, be enriched with the best from every spoken dialect and established as a serious literary language. Thus the created language would be a way to unify the separated Italian territories. This treatise was one of the first medieval investigations of political philosophy, bringing forth the idea for a world government. IL CONVIVIO was a collection of verse written between 1306 and 1308, QUAESTIO DE AQUA ET TERRA a scholastic treatise on physics. Thirteen Latin EPISTLES included both personal and political letters.
La divina commedia was completed just before the poet's death. He probably started to write it in 1307. The Purgatorio was written in Verona, where he stayed more or less continuously from late 1312 to mid-1318. In Ravenna he wrote the final phases of the Paradiso. By the time the first two parts of the Comedy had been sent in circulation, Dante was being acclaimed through much of Tuscany as its greatest poet. Dante's idea was to make the world of his poem a mirror of the world of the Christian God of his era. He thought that Thomas Aquinas had effected the final reconciliation between Aristotle's philosophy and Christian faith. Commedia was Dante's tribute to this system.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) delivered the first public lectures of the "divino poeta" and compiled in the early 1350s the first biography of Dante. In it Boccaccio wrote: "Our poet was of middle height; his face was long, his nose was aquiline, his jaw large, and his under lip protruding somewhat beyond the upper. His eyes rather large than small; his hair and beard thick, crisp, and black, and his countenance sad and pensive. His gait was grave and gentlemanlike, and his bearing, in public or private, wonderfully composed and polished. In meat and drink he was most temperate." When a splendid edition of Dante's poem was published in 1555, the adjective "divine" was applied to the poem's title, and thus the work, originally simply named Commedia, became La divina commedia. It is a narrative poem in terza rima containing 14 233 lines organized into 100 cantos approximately 142 lines each.
Written in the first person, it tells of the poet's journey through the realm of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The Roman poet Virgil (Vergilius) is the guide through the Inferno and Purgatorio. Dante greets Virgil as "my master and my author". Beatrice, the personification of pure love, has been sent to rescue Dante. She finally leads Dante to Paradiso. Dante is then able to gaze upon the supreme radiance of God. He ends his pilgrimage into vision of "'the Love which moves the sun and the other stars." The dual allegory of Commedia - the progress of the soul toward Heaven, and the anguish of humankind on Earth - would later be echoed by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84).
Commedia's most popular translation into English was made by Henry Cary (1772-1884), who issued The Inferno first, and later the complete work. A separate translation of The Inferno by Warwick Chipman (1961) is considered closer to the style and approach of Dante. - Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) illustrated text of Inferno (1861) is among the most famous editions