Dante Alighieri Biography


Dante was born in Florence in May 1265. His family was of an old lineage, of noble birth but no longer wealthy. His education was undoubtedly typical of all the youth of that time and station in life.

When he was only 12 years old, his marriage to the daughter of the famous Donati family was arranged, along with the amount of her dowry. These betrothals and marriages were family affairs, and Dante dutifully married her, some years later, at the proper time and had two sons and one daughter.

Dante studied at the University of Bologna, one of the most famous universities in the medieval world. There, he came under the influence of one of the most famous scholars of the time, Ser Brunetto Latini, who never taught Dante but advised and encouraged him. Latini appears in Canto XV of the Inferno.

When Dante was still very young, 10 to 12 years old, he met a 9-year-old girl at a prominent function. She wore a bright crimson dress, and to Dante, she radiated the celestial beauty of an angel. The girl was Beatrice, and there is no doubt that she was the great love of Dante's life, and the greatest single influence on his work. Dante loved her at a distance, and she was, most probably, totally unaware of Dante's devotion to her. He recorded this devotion in an early work Vita Nuova (A New Life). Her name appears only once in the Inferno, but she plays an important role in Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Dante's public life began when he fought bravely in a battle at Campaldino in 1289. By 1295, he was completely involved in political causes, and was elected to the City Council that year. Florence, at that time, had two political parties: the Guelphs, who supported the pope as the ruler of the Catholic Church but believed that he should not be involved in secular affairs (that is a belief in the American concept of the separation of church and state); and the Ghibellines, who believed the pope should rule both secular and religious factions. As a member of the Guelph political party, Dante was sent often on missions to arrange peace between the two warring parties. His opposition to the pope's interference to the unification of all the various city-states often brought him to be at odds with the reigning pope.

While on a mission to Rome to arrange a truce between the two parties, trumped-up charges were made against Dante: He was charged with graft, intrigue against the peace of the city, and hostility against the pope. He was fined heavily and ordered to report to the Council to defend himself.

Rightly so, he was fearful for his life, and he did not appear to answer the charges. A heavier penalty was imposed. All of his property was confiscated, he was sentenced to be burned at the stake if caught, and his two sons were banished with him. In 1302, he was exiled from his native city, never to return.

At first he joined other political exiles, but he found them too stupid and selfish. It is not known where he spent many of his years in exile, but he was often well received. He began his great poem, The Divine Comedy, and it attracted a large and sympathetic audience. Commentaries flowed soon, and he became very well known. One of his hosts was the nephew to Francesca, who appears in Canto V of the Inferno.

He died in Ravenna on September 13, 1321, and he was buried with honors due him. Several times during the intervening years, the city of Florence has tried to get his remains returned to his native city, but not even the intercession of several popes could bring this about. His opinion of the citizens of his city was clearly stated in the full title of his greatest work, The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by Citizenship, Not by Morals. Dante still lies in the monastery of the Franciscan friars in Ravenna.