About the Author

Portrait of Alighieri Dante

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 Divinia Commedia. It has profoundly affected not only the religious imagination but all subsequent allegorical creation of imaginary worlds in literature.

Dante was born into a Florentine family of noble ancestry. Little is known about Dante's childhood exept what he himself have revealed. Dante's mother died when he was a child and his father died before the future poet reached manhood. He was thoroughly educated in both classical and Christian literature. At the age of 12 he was promised to his future wife, although he had already fallen in love with another girl whom he called Beatrice.

By the time Dante was 18, he had already become interested in writing verse, sending an early sonnet to the poet Guido Cavalcanti. This 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.

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 and died in 1290, at the age of 24. After Beatrice's death, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. He also entered politics and joined the White (Bianchi) Guelphs, one of the rival factions within the Guelph party. He was member of the guild of physicians and apothecaries, to which philosophers could belong, and which opened the doors to public office him. Dante served the commune in various councils and was ambassador to San Gimignano in 1300 and then to Rome.

When the Black (Neri) Guelphs, who had the pope's support, ascended to power, Dante was exiled. The White Guelphs's were condemned to death by burning should they be caught again in Florence. They soon made an alliance with the Ghibelline party and attempted several unsuccessful attacks on Florence. White Guelphs's hopes ended with the death (1313) of the emperor Henry VII, who they had hoped would reunite Germany and Italy. Dante had married (1292?) Gemma Donati, by whom he had two sons and one or two daughters, but she did not accompany him into exile.

After 1302 Dante never saw his home town again, but found shelter from various Italian cities and rulers, including 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, Dante started to write his Commedia, a long story-poem through the three worlds of the afterlife, under the patronage of Ghibelline leaders. About 1320 Dante made his final home in Ravenna, where he died on September 14, 1321.

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 terrotories. This treatise was one of the first medieval investigations of political philosophy, bringing forth the idea for a world government. Il Convivio (c. 1304-07) was a collection of verse, 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. 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. Recognition for this work did not last long. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote a life of the poet and in 1373-74 delivered the first public lectures of the "divino poeta". 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 afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The Roman poet Virgil (Vergilius) is the guide through the Inferno and Purgatorio, and Beatrice, the personification of pure love, finally leads him to Paradiso. Dante is then able to gaze upon the supreme radiance of God. The dual allegory of Commedia - the progress of soul toward Heaven, and the anguish of humankind in seeking peace on Earth - would later be echoed by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84). As a child of his time, in Commedia Dante repeatedly condemns the Popes for their involvement in politics. He argued in Monarchia, that there should be one supreme ruler, the Emperor, not the Pope, as during the reign of Augustus.

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.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.