Dante Alighieri Biography

Dante Alighieri Biography

Dante Alighieri took the world to hell and back. The thirteenth-century poet’s most enduring work, The Divine Comedy, is an epic, three-volume journey through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradiso). Perhaps the most famous of the three parts is Inferno, which describes in great, gory detail the nine layers of hell and the punishments of those imprisoned there. Dante’s main achievement, however, in The Divine Comedy is that he transformed and elevated Italian literature to world-class status with his philosophical and poetic writing. In the seven centuries since its publication, Dante’s masterpiece has continued to influence thinkers, artists, and authors from every major period that followed, including the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Who knew that hell would sound so good?

Facts and Trivia

  • Florence figures prominently in many of Dante’s works. Ironically, he was exiled from Florence during the last two decades of his life.
  • In addition to his writing career, Dante also served as a physician, soldier, and dilettante politician.
  • While not necessarily a laugh-out-loud story, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is so named because the story ends happily.
  • Language is one of the many important reasons why Dante is so integral to the evolution of Italian literature. Until his time, erudite works were composed almost exclusively in Latin and Greek. By incorporating Tuscan Italian (among other sources) into his writing style, Dante helped cement Italian as a truly literary language.
  • Dante’s literary and cultural impact is diverse and extensive. He has been quoted, adapted, or otherwise referenced in works as varied as American Psycho, Frankenstein, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Hannibal (as in Lecter).


(MAXnotes to Dante's Inferno)

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.

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Epics for Students)

As is often the case with medieval authors, we know relatively little about Dante Alighieri's personal...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)
0111201538-Dante.jpg Dante (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in vernacular Italian terza rima, synthesizes classical and medieval thought in a confessional format which is at once universal and intensely personal.

Early Life

A welter of legend surrounds the life of Dante, author of the tripartite masterpiece La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). Still, certain facts are clear. His neighbor Giovanni Villani wrote a brief sketch, and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a eulogy which appeared sometime after Dante’s death. These accounts agree on a birth date in May of 1265. His family had had noble origins at least several generations before Dante’s birth, and their surname was originally Alagherius or Alaghieri. Dante’s own name is a shortened form of Durante. His mother died during his childhood, and his father, who remarried, died in 1283. Dante had two sisters (one a half sister named Tana from his father’s second marriage) and a half brother named Francesco. Although his family was nominally ennobled, it was neither rich nor especially prominent.

By all accounts, Dante’s early life was a happy one. His family recognized the value of education and sent him to an elementary school run by the Dominicans and subsequently to the school of Santa Croce. He read both Provençal and Italian poets during these early years and acquired a knowledge of metrics entirely on his own. His readings gave him vivid impressions of country as well as city life; he also enjoyed art and practiced drawing.

Florence was the center of the literary and artistic world in the late Middle Ages, and the city continued to flourish during the Renaissance. It was during these transitional years that the young Dante and those with whom he associated lived there. The poet Guido Cavalcanti, although Dante’s senior, became “the first among [his] friends,” as Dante records in La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), and his literary adviser. In the Inferno’s circle of Epicureans, Guido’s father Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti learns of his son’s death in one of the canticle’s most poignant scenes. Guido was a man of his times in every sense; he disliked classical verse in general and Vergil’s poetry in particular, primarily because of its imperialism and religious piety.

Brunetto Latini, a scholar and author of a French prose encyclopedia called Li Livres dou tresor (1266; the books of treasure), was another important influence on Dante. Much conjecture surrounds Dante’s placing his mentor among the Sodomites of the Inferno. The best explanation, cogently argued by John Freccero, is that Dante came to recognize the pridefulness a comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge implies and realized, as had Saint Augustine, that one could be seduced by glib language.

Practically nothing is known about the musician Mario Casella aside from Dante’s affection for him—and that he serenades the Pilgrim Dante and the penitents in the Purgatorio and shaped Dante’s love of music. Casella died sometime before 1300, the year in which The Divine Comedy is set. Not much more can be said of Dante’s contemporaries the poets Lapo Gianni and Cino da Pistoia, except that they saw themselves as the vanguard of new poets who would change the character of Italian verse.

Life’s Work

The literary ferment of Dante’s time was matched and exceeded by political instability and violence, and Dante found himself thrust into this atmosphere. Florence was an essentially independent municipality controlled by its trade unions and intense partisan interests. In 1289, Dante, a young poet married for several years to Gemma Donati, participated in the Battle of Campaldino, fighting against the rival town of Arezzo. His wife was a fourth cousin of Corso and Forese Donati, perhaps of the same family as the Buoso degli Abati of the Inferno; certainly, however, Corso Donati was an infamous leader of the Florentine political faction known as the “Blacks.” Dante and his wife had at least three, possibly four, children during the period they lived together: two sons, named Pietro and Jacopo, and one or two daughters, Antonia and, less certainly, Beatrice. Dante’s was an arranged marriage (with the dowry set in 1277), but it was not necessarily an unhappy one, as some contend. His wife did not follow Dante into exile in 1302, probably because her family ties to Florence were so strong.

The political conflict between “Blacks” and “Whites” had its origins in a continued class struggle between Guelfs and Ghibellines. The emerging middle class (essentially Ghibelline) was despised by the old military aristocracy (primarily Guelf), which built fortifications throughout and surrounding Florence, and although a battle fought at Benevento in 1266 brought a seemingly decisive defeat of the Ghibellines, the two factions reorganized around the Black Guelfs of the Donati family and the White Ghibellines of the Cerchi family. To assert aristocratic prerogative, the Blacks enlisted the aid of Pope Boniface VIII, who hoped to make Tuscany part of the Papal States. In 1302, Boniface sent an army into Tuscany under Charles de Valois (supposedly to establish order); the Whites, Dante among them, were driven from Florence. Dante would never return to his beloved city; he would also never...

(The entire section is 2242 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Dante was an only child in a family that belonged to Italy’s lower nobility. By his own account, the most significant event of his childhood occurred when he was nine and first gazed upon a nine-year-old girl named Beatrice, his lifelong secret love who inspired much of his poetry. (The girl later became the Florentine noblewoman Beatrice Portinari). Dante spent most of his youth circulating in Florence’s cosmopolitan literary community, in which he developed an interest in literature.

Dante’s political troubles began in 1300, when he was elected to Florence’s municipal council. In the political turmoil that plagued Italy at the time, Dante allied with the nationalist faction known as the Ghibelline against...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the spring of 1265, it is believed, Dante was born to a Florentine family of the lesser nobility called Alighieri. Bella, his mother, died within a few years of his birth, and his father remarried shortly thereafter. As a result Dante had at least three half-brothers. In 1274, at age nine, he first met Beatrice, and he considered this the most significant event of his childhood. Daughter of Folco Portinari, Beatrice was to become “the glorious lady of my mind,” the very essence of the literary mistress in the courtly tradition. As far as is known, Dante saw her only once more, during his eighteenth year. During his youth he probably studied with the Franciscans in Florence. Much he learned on his own, and he may have studied...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Dante Alighieri was a citizen, and his city was Florence. Medieval Italian cities were for the most part independent states, free of feudal allegiances, with power based not on land, but on harbors, commerce, and industry. The nobility within these cities had gradually yielded power to the new bourgeois interests, but the traditional lines of that struggle were still evident, the nobles seeking support from the emperor and the bourgeois and popular elements tending to oppose the empire and join with the pope.

Those in the imperial faction were called Ghibelines, and those in Papal, or at least the anti-imperial faction, were known as Guelphs. The faction one chose to support often had more to do with current and...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Dante (DAHN-tay) Alighieri was born in Florence sometime in May or June, 1265. His family was of the minor nobility, though neither wealthy nor particularly famous. What details exist concerning his background and career come from his own writings, from the sketch written by his neighbor Giovanni Villani, from the eulogy written after his death by Giovanni Boccaccio, and from the fifteenth century biography written by Leonardo Bruni. The miscellaneous nature of these sources, the fictive elements incorporated in Dante’s own biographical references, and the welter of legend that surrounds his life make it difficult to isolate fact from fiction; nevertheless, certain things are clear.

Dante’s family name was...

(The entire section is 1218 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Love’s transcendent power directs both The New Life and The Divine Comedy to their conclusions. Though entirely different in their scope and complexity, both works ratify this transcendence through the signification of language and the figure of Beatrice. Still, one indication of the aesthetic distance between the two works is that the former emphasizes that love offers the means by which life evolves, while the latter identifies pure love as the First Cause of the cosmos itself. It is a mark of Dante’s artistry that he manages to universalize the highly personal situations upon which both works depend. Ultimately, in The Divine Comedy, the mode of allegory allows him to do that even as he retains...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Dante Alighieri Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Dante (DAHN-tay) Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, was born into a Florentine family of noble lineage but modest circumstances. His father was Alighiero di Bellincione d’Alighiero, of a family that can be traced back to the second crusade. His mother, Bella, died when he was a child; she may have been the daughter of Durante di Scolaio degli Abati, a name that would account for the “Dante,” a contraction of “Durante.” Dante’s family was connected with the Guelphs, the papal party antagonistic to the imperial Ghibellines. He was baptized in the San Giovanni Baptistery.

Despite the family’s financial status, Dante was able to be educated as a gentleman, and he probably studied rhetoric in...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)