The Inferno: Biography: Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri  was born in Florence, Italy, in late May of 1265. Florence at that time was an independent city-state, and Italy was made up of many separate, often warring states, with the popes ruling one area themselves and deeply involved in the politics and wars of the day. Dantes family was of the minor nobility, with some landed property that brought in rent, but not enough to live on. Dantes father was a notary and a moneylender.
When he was almost nine, on the first of May in 1274, Dante saw Beatrice Portinari for the first time at a May celebration. His love for her immediately became one of the most important forces in his life, and it remained so until he died. Marriages were arranged for family reasons at the time, and he could never hope to marry her. He was formally betrothed to a woman named Gemma Donati in 1277, when he was eleven and she was ten, and presumably they were actually married and began to live together as husband and wife when he was nineteen. They had four children, but Dante never speaks of his wife in his poetry. Beatrice also married, in 1287.
As a boy, Dante found the blessedness of his life in going where he could see Beatrice, and when he was eighteen she spoke to him for the first time. He began writing poetry to her, and after she died in 1290 he gathered the poems together, wrote a narrative around them, and circulated the resulting book under the title La Vita Nuova di Dante Alighieri (The New Life). The book makes clear that he considers that she has been a personal revelation of Divine Love for him, as Christ was for all of humanity, and he expresses at the end of the book his ambition to “write of her what was never said of any other woman.”
During these years Dante also fought in several campaigns waged by Florence against other city-states, and he became known as a promising poet. He turned to philosophy for consolation after Beatrices death, and he educated himself, gaining an incredible mastery of the learning of his time. He also became seriously interested in the politics of the day and began to hold public office. In June of 1300, he was elected as one of the priors, the highest officials in Florence, and held that office for the usual two months.
The two parties that were at war in much of Italy were the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the former tending to support the popes claims to power and the latter those of the Holy Roman Emperor. Dantes Florence was Guelph, but the Guelphs had split into the Blacks and the Whites, and Dante was a White. Extreme and vindictive Blacks, with the help of Boniface VIII, a pope Dante despised for his pride and ambition, forcibly took power in Florence in 1301, and Dante, along with many other Whites, was accused on trumped-up charges of graft while in office. Fortunately, he was out of town at the time, and he never returned, knowing he could not hope for a fair trial. The Blacks passed sentence on him in absentia, he lost all his property, and if he had returned he would have been burned at the stake.
At first Dante looked for a purely political solution to the troubles of the day, and wrote in favor of the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, hoping that one just universal authority would bring an end to the constant warfare of the time. Dante argued that the Church should confine itself to religious matters; he saw the political ambitions of the papacy as causing nothing but trouble. He also hoped that a knowledge of philosophy would improve human behavior. Then, probably around 1309, Dante began to focus on the writing of his great work, his Commedia, later called La Divina Commedia, hoping to bring his readers and his world from misery to happiness by his vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. As the first part of his work began to be circulated, many recognized him as the greatest poet in Italy. Minstrels sang parts of the work, and some of the less educated used to shrink from him when he entered a city, seeing him as a man who had walked through Hell.
Exile was always bitter for Dante, and at first he had been dependent on what was almost charity, but as his work became better known, he found kind and generous patrons, and in 1318, when he was fifty-three, one such patron persuaded him to move to Ravenna, where his whole family joined him, and he finished the Paradiso. He never gave up the desire to return to Florence and be crowned with the laurel wreath there, but otherwise he seems to have been quite happy in Ravenna. In 1321, returning from a successful diplomatic mission, Dante caught malaria and died, at fifty-six. He was buried in Ravenna, and there his bones still are, though eventually Florence tried repeatedly to get them.
Dante created Italian as a unified language and has always inspired intense national pride. Many even of the less educated know long passages of Dante by heart. Italians are often horrified to find how little Americans know about Dante-but to those who do know Dante they open their hearts. By all those who love poetry in the rest of the world he is recognized as a supreme poet, “the central man of all the world,” as the English essayist John Ruskin called him.