Dante Alighieri, the son of a nobleman, was born in May of 1265 in Florence, Italy. Dante received his early education in Florence but later attended the University of Bologna. His learning experiences included a tour in the Florence army when he fought at the Battle of Campaldino.
Dante’s great love seems to have been Beatrice—probably Beatrice Portinari. Dante and Beatrice met when they were children and Dante apparently worshipped her. Beatrice was Dante’s inspiration for The Divine Comedy; after her death in 1290, he dedicated a memorial “The New Life” (La Vita Nuova) to her. Though each married, they did not marry each other.
Dante instead entered an arranged marriage in 1291 with Gemma Donati, a noblewoman; they had two sons and either one or two daughters. Records contain little else about their life together.
By 1302 Dante was a political exile from Florence. He probably started The Divine Comedy after this exile. Politics, history, mythology, religious leaders, and prominent people of the time, of literature, of the past, and of Dante’s personal life—including Beatrice—appear throughout The Divine Comedy. The work was a major departure from most of the literature of the day since it was written in Italian, not the Latin of most other important writing. Dante finished The Divine Comedy just before his death on September 14, 1321; he was still in exile and was living under the protection of Guido da Polenta in Ravenna. Perhaps still bitter from his expulsion from Florence, Dante wrote on the title page of The Divine Comedy that he was “a Florentine by birth, but not in manner” (Bergin, 444).
Bergin describes Dante as “the first important writer to emerge after the Dark Ages” and his work as “the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in literature” (444). According to Bergin, “The Divine Comedy is a complete expression of medieval philosophy, religion, and culture. The beauty of its poetry and the universality of its scope [especially in this time when distractions abound] make it one of the most sublime achievements in all literature” (444). While some found fault with a writer who put those with whom he differed in Hell and those whom he favored in Heaven (Vincent), many critics of the day heaped praise on the work which reflected the religious outlook of an earlier day and yet contained the robust language of the Italian people along with vivid imagery. Other Italian writers, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, used Dante’s work as a model—the most sincere form of flattery.
As is often the case with medieval authors, we know relatively little about Dante Alighieri's personal life. In his Convivio (circa 1304-1307) (The Banquet), he tells us that he was born in Florence, Italy, and we now know that his birth probably occurred in late May or early June, 1265, in the San Martino district of that city. We know that his father, Alighiero di Bellincione d'Alighieri, was a notary. His mother, Donna Bella, was probably the daughter of the noble Durante degli Abati. She died before Dante was fourteen, and his father took a second wife, Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. They had a son, Francesco, and a daughter, Tana. Although the Alighieri family was noble by virtue of the titles bestowed upon it, by 1265 its social status and wealth seem to have declined. Nonetheless, when Alighiero Alighieri died around 1283, he left his children moderately well off, owners of city and country properties.
Around this time, Dante Alighieri followed through on the marriage arranged by his father in 1277 and took the gentlewoman Gemma Donati as his wife. They had two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, and at least one daughter, Antonia. (Dante and Gemma might have had a second daughter, Beatrice, although Beatrice could have been Antonia's monastery name.) Dante's marriage and family life seem to have had no impact on his poetry. He wrote nothing about his immediate family in the Divine Comedy (circa 1308-21), but there might be a reference to a sister in La Vita Nuova (The New Life) (circa 1292-1300).
As a youth, Dante might have attended Florence's Franciscan lower school and school of philosophy. Brunetto Latini (circa 1220-94), the distinguished scholar, teacher, statesman and author, encouraged him to study rhetoric at the University at Bologna. In La Vita Nuova Dante tells us that he taught himself to write verse. He became one of Florence's top poets, associating and exchanging work with other well-known writers like Guido Cavalcanti (circa 1240-1300), Lapo Gianni (circa 1270-1332) and Cino da Pistoia (circa 1270-1336). Dante was friendly with the musician and singer Casella (no dates) and might have known the artists Oderisi da Gubbio (circa 1240-99) and Giotto (circa 1267-1337).
In 1274, when he was nine years old, Dante tells us he met Bice Portinan, whom he later called Beatrice, "bringer of blessedness." His love for this beautiful daughter of Folco Portinari was to become one of the strongest forces in his life. When she died suddenly in 1290, Dante collected the lyric poems he had written to her, linked them with prose commentaries and produced La Vita Nuova, the slim volume that is really the beginning of his masterwork, the Divine Comedy. Linking the two is Dante's love for and idealization of Beatrice, a love which Dante transformed from the physical to the spiritual. Indeed in the Divine Comedy, Beatrice prepares Dante the Pilgrim for and leads him to his final face-to-face meeting with God.
Dante was also a soldier, a politician, and a diplomat. Like other families of the lesser nobility and artisan class, the Alighieris allied themselves with the Florentine political faction called the Guelfs (or Guelphs). Their opposition, the Ghibellines, represented the feudal aristocracy. Dante saw military service as a member of the cavalry, which he joined in 1289. He fought with Florence and her Guelf allies against Arezzo, in their victory at the battle of Campaldino in 1289, and in the Guelf victory at Caprona in August of that year.
As a first step toward holding important public offices, Dante joined the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries in 1295. That same year he served on the People's Council of the Commune of Florence and as a member of the council that elected that city's Priors. In 1296 we find him on the Council of the Hundred, an influential political body involved in Florentine civic and financial matters. He traveled as ambassador to San Gimignano in 1300 and was himself elected that year to the high office of Prior.
Again as ambassador, the White Guelfs (his faction) sent him to meet with the Pope at Anagni. While he was away, the Whites lost power and their rivals, the Black Guelfs, exiled Dante for two years. They charged him with conspiracy against the Pope and Florence. Dante refused to appear at his hearing in 1302 or to pay his fines, since he thought doing so would be an admission of guilt. The Blacks told him that if he ever returned to Florence he would be arrested and burned alive. There is no evidence that he ever saw his beloved Florence again.
From 1303 on, Dante traveled extensively in northern Italy and lived the rest of his days as a courtier and teacher in exile. In 1303 he stayed in Verona with Bartolomeo della Scala, and in 1304 appeared in Arezzo plotting a re-entry into Florence with other exiled Whites and Ghibellines. This failed disastrously and Dante probably moved on to Lunigiana, where he performed diplomatic services for the Malaspina family from 1305-07. Some historians think he journeyed to Paris in 1309 to study at the University, although there is little evidence to support this. From 1312-18 he lived in Verona, again with the Scala family, this time under the patronage of Can Grande della Scala, to whom he dedicated his Paradise, the third volume of the Divine Comedy. While in Verona, the Florentine government again sentenced Dante to death and this time extended the threat to include his sons. From 1318-21 Dante was in Ravenna under the protection of Guido Novella da Polenta, surrounded by eager pupils and highly praised as the author of Convivio, Inferno and Purgatory. On September 13 or 14, in 1321, Dante died in Ravenna, where he is buried.