William Blake, portrait of Dante
04-10-2021

Dante Alighieri: life, works, poetics

The biography, writings and thought of the Great Poet

The entire cultural tradition of modern Europe looks to the person of Dante and his Comedy as the highest point of maturity of thought ever reached in human history: he is the only poetic thinker capable of rising up in the face of the past millennium and summing it up with creative originality in a new thought to give it back to the following centuries, up to us.
But who is Dante?

Dante meets Beatrice for the first time

The life of Dante

Birth and family. Son of Alighiero di Bellincione and Bella degli Abati, his first wife, Dante was born in Florence in 1265 in a period of time that is not yet well defined (but his Gemini sign would suggest the period between 21 May and 21 June), into a family belonging to the small Guelph nobility of the city, who boasted ancient origins but were now in a modest economic condition.

His studies. Dante was guaranteed an education from a very young age: he attended schools of grammar and rhetoric and then became a pupil of the famous Brunetto Latini. This was accompanied by a period of study in Bologna, where he lived between 1286 and 1287, and attendance (after 1290) of the two convent schools active in Florence, where he was able to study philosophy and theology in depth.

Beatrice. At the age of nine (1274), as he himself confesses, he met Beatrice for the first time, the woman who would become the woman of his poetry and the central figure of his spiritual journey. The girl has been identified as Folco Portinari's daughter Bice, later Simone Martini's wife, but little is known about her apart from her premature death in 1290, when she was just over twenty.

The marriage. In 1277, at the age of twelve, Dante was betrothed - by the will of the families involved - to Gemma di Manetto Donati, whom he officially married in 1285. The union produced the children Jacopo and Pietro (known above all for being among the first commentators on the Divine Comedy) and Antonia, who took her vows under the name of Sister Beatrice.

Political commitment. An active participant in the dynamics of his time, especially at a time when Florence was affected by the internal conflicts between the Guelph Bianchi (on whose side the poet sided) and the Neri, he was a soldier and a politician, occasions in which he did not fail to show a marked resourcefulness that led him to hold the high office of prior of the city. But the situation rapidly precipitated: the exiled Neri regained the Florentine government thanks to the support of Pope Boniface VIII and King Charles of Valois; the Bianchi were condemned to death in absentia and Dante, who in the meantime had gone to the pontiff as ambassador, was unable to return.

Exile and death. In 1302, the poet began his long exile, wandering between cities and lords with whom he found shelter: from Forlì he went to Verona, where he stayed with Cangrande della Scala, and then on to Ravenna, where he was welcomed into the house of Guido Novello da Polenta. Hopes for the intervention of the new Emperor Henry VII were in vain, especially after his sudden death in 1313. Far from Florence, therefore, Dante died in Ravenna on the night between 13 and 14 September 1321, following a malarial fever.

Dante strolls through the crowd

The works of Dante

Very close to literary culture, not only by virtue of his apprenticeship with Latini but also because of his close ties with a number of contemporary rhymers (Dante da Maiano, Guido Guinizelli, Cavalcanti), Dante was involved in writing and composing poetry from a very young age.

Vita Nuova and Rime. A sample of what was a large part of his first production in verse is offered by the Vita Nuova (1292-1294), a spiritual autobiography, in the form of prose, in which the author retraces his sentimental parabola with Beatrice (from the first meeting until the pain of her death) through the most significant lyrics, now reinterpreted in a philosophical-theological key: so that the beloved woman becomes an essential angelic figure for the elevation of the soul to God and love the main vehicle of this path. The texts not included in the Vita Nuova (or in the Convivio) make up the Rime as a whole: in them we find the themes dearest to the poet (love, philosophy, politics, exile) in the most diverse forms (song, sonnet, ballad, sestina) and styles (stylistic, experimental, allegorical).

Poems. The Fiore and the Detto d'Amore, poetic vernacularisations of the Roman de la Rose, would date from this period, if Dante's authorship is considered true (still debated today).

De vulgari eloquentia. Dante's linguistic contribution was entrusted to the De vulgari eloquentia (1303-1305), a treatise in two books (unfinished) in Latin in which, addressing the scholars of the time through a careful analysis of the characteristics and role of the vernacular, he pronounced himself in favour of the use of this new language (defined as the 'illustrious vernacular') as an instrument of political and cultural renewal in place of Latin.

Convivio. Another incomplete work, but in the vernacular, is the Convivio (1304-1308). A prose in four treatises (the first introductory, the other three commenting on Dante's philosophical songs under analysis), its aim was to serve as a sort of medieval encyclopaedia for men and women who had abandoned their studies.

Monarchia. The only completed theoretical work, however, is De Monarchia, a political treatise in Latin (of uncertain date) in which the author reflects on the roles and functions of the Church and the Empire, declaring the need for collaboration and reciprocal independence for both, but looking to the universal monarchy (the Empire) as the only form of government capable of guaranteeing peace and the rights of the individual.

The works of exile. Dante also wrote in Latin the thirteen Epistles, significant evidence of his moral, political and religious ideals (the best known, but also doubtful, is the XIII to Cangrande della Scala); the two responsive Eglogues (1319-1320) addressed to the Bolognese scholar Giovanni del Virgilio; and the Quaestio de aqua et terra, the text of the lecture Dante gave in Verona in January 1320 in which he illustrated how water, in our concentric world, does not completely envelop the earth.

Dante and Virgil in Hell

The Divine Comedy by Dante

Composed between 1304 and 1321, in 100 cantos structured in three canticles of 33 cantos each, flanked by the proemiale, the Commedia (defined as Divine by Boccaccio) is Dante's absolute masterpiece and that of all Italian literature.

Labelled an allegorical poem, the poet recounts the imaginary journey he makes through the three otherworldly realms of hell, purgatory and paradise during Easter 1300: A long and complex journey during which he will encounter numerous figures of great depth (from the human figures of the damned, the purgatorial and the blessed to the bestial or divine creatures that inhabit each world), each of which is an important piece of the impressive poetic mosaic created by the work and an integral part of its underlying moral purpose: to guide man to salvation and to ensure that he conquers beatitude, the prize not of this world but of the next (as prescribed by the Christian-Catholic vision), through the free (but correct) exercise of the will.

Each character is therefore a paradigmatic example offered by the poet to humanity, so that it may be aware of good and evil and be able to make a conscious choice of its consequences (illustrated, in fact, in these cantos).

Dante observes the clouds

Dante's poetics

Components of the fundamental nucleus of Dante's thought are certainly - due to Latini's influence - the close proximity of politics and literature and the ideal of the committed intellectual.

Politics and language. While Dante initially showed himself to be a supporter of the communal reality, the negative aspects of a politically fragmented country experienced during his exile led him to change his opinion, focusing instead on the urgent need for absolute action by a single authority, the imperial one (De Monarchia). However, in order for such an intervention to be respectful of the principles of harmony and civil concord, a synergy between the monarch and intellectuals, the only ones capable of forming an 'enlightened' government, is essential. Hence Dante's interest in the adoption of a new cultural expression (De vulgari eloquentia) through which to educate the sovereign and society (Convivio).

Love. No less important is the presence of love in Dante's reflections. Son of the stylistic season, all centred on service to his beloved made up of games of glance, suffered fidelity and nourished by minimal gestures (such as the greeting), the poet progressively detaches himself from this earthly conception to embrace a more spiritual one that 'angelises' the woman as a celestial entity and makes of the feeling nurtured for her devotion - and possibility of ascent - towards the highest manifestation of love, God.

Philosophy. It is perhaps to these outcomes that we can attribute Dante's passage from the human knowledge of philosophy, which he approached in need of consolation after Beatrice's death, to the divine knowledge of theology, whose primacy he would eventually uphold.

by Vincenzo Canto
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