The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 to Alighiero Alighieri, who appears to have been a moneylender and property holder, and his wife, Bella. Alighieri’s was a family of good standing. Much of what we know of Dante’s earliest years comes to us from La Vita Nuova (The New Life, completed around 1293), in which he tells the story of his idealized love for Beatrice Portinari, whom he encountered just before his ninth birthday. Beatrice died in 1290 but remained Dante’s idealized love and muse throughout his life. Sometime around 1285 Dante married Gemma Donati, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

Dante’s public life is better documented than his private life. It is known that he counted among his closest friends the poet Guido Cavalcanti and the philosopher and writer Brunetto Latini, who is generally credited with bringing classical literature to thirteenth-century Florence. Dante began an intense study of theology at the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce in 1292, and was well-versed in classical literature and philosophy as well as religious thought. Membership in a guild was a requirement to participate in the government of Florence, and Dante partook of this privilege after enrolling in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali (Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries) in 1295. He was elected to serve as a prior, the city’s highest office, in 1300.

By early 1302, however, Dante had fallen out of favor in Florence. The Guelphs, the ruling body with whom Dante’s family had long been associated, had split into two factions, the White and the Black Guelphs. Dante aligned himself with the Whites, who were opposed to the intervention of Pope Boniface VIII and his representative, Charles of Valois, in Florentine politics. While Dante was in Rome with a delegation protesting papal policy, Charles of Valois entered the city and a proclamation was issued banishing Dante and others, ordering them to be burned alive should they fall into the hands of the Florentine government.

Dante never returned to Florence, even after the exiles were granted a pardon. He probably began La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) around 1380, during his extensive travels throughout Italy. The work brought him fame as soon as it began to circulate (in hand-copied form, at a time when the printing press had not yet been invented). Dante’s travels took him to Verona, where he resided on and off for some six years, and finally to Ravenna, where he died on September 14, 1321, after falling ill in Venice.

Dante Alighieri is considered to be one of the world’s greatest poets. In the words of the twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”

The World of Dante and the Inferno

1265 In May or June (exact date unknown), Dante Alighieri is born to Alighiero Alighieri, a Florentine moneylender and renter of properties, and his wife, Bella, daughter of a family of good standing. (Dante discusses his ancestry in Paradiso [Paradise], cantos XV and XVI.)

1272 Bella dies.

1274 According to his later collection of poetry and prose La Vita Nuova (The New Life), Dante lays eyes on Beatrice Portinari for the first time during festivities on May I. Throughout his life and career Dante cites Beatrice as his muse and as the benevolent force in his life, maintaining that she inspired the best part of his work.

1281 Dante, some scholars contend, studies at the universities of Bologna and Padua.

1282 Dante’s father dies, leaving a modest inheritance of property.

1283 Dante passes Beatrice in the street and she greets him. The encounter inspires a visionlike dream, which Dante