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.