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Dante Alighieri: Biography, Works & Quotes

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Meet Dante Alighieri: a Medieval Italian poet with a fascinating life who wrote about everything from philosophy to politics to the afterlife. We will discuss his life, and a few of his works, including La Vita Nuova, The Divine Comedy, Convivio, and De Monarchia.

Introduction

Born in 1265, Dante Alighieri would become one of the most renowned and admired poets of all time. He wrote about everything from the afterlife to philosophy to politics. Dante often boasted of his own wisdom, and he usually wrote in vernacular Medieval Italian so that commoners could have access to his wisdom. Some details of his life remain unclear, but his works have given us additional insight into Dante's life, his passion for poetry, and his culture.

Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli
Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

Biography

Dante was born in Medieval Florence, Italy, into a family that likely had some social standing. He received some formal education and developed an affinity for classic poetry (like that of the ancient Roman poet, Virgil) and the troubadour poetry of the late Middle Ages (which focused on chivalry and courtly love). Dante and a few other major poets of his time developed a new literary movement called dolce stil novo or The Sweet New Style, which discussed love, deified women, and utilized metaphors, symbols, and introspection. This passionate, philosophical, and self-reflective style would come to characterize most of Dante's work.

Before Dante's parents died, they arranged for him to marry Gemma Donati. Though Gemma and Dante married in 1283 or 1284 and had 4 children, they likely did not have a happy marriage because Dante never forgot his first love, Beatrice. Dante met and fell hopelessly in love with Beatrice when he was 9, and, after her death in 1290, she would become both the inspiration for and a character in much of his poetry.

Dante and his Beatrice, painting by Henry Holiday
Dante and his Beatrice, painting by Henry Holiday

In addition to Beatrice, another theme recurs time and again in Dante's work: exile. Politics in Florence was tumultuous at this time, with the rule of Florence bouncing back and forth between 2 opposing political parties: the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs. In 1295, Dante became involved with the White Guelphs, who were ruling Florence at the time. But the Black Guelphs eventually took over, and, in 1302, they exiled several of the previous rulers, including Dante. Dante was crushed by this exile, and he spent the next 2 decades drifting through Italy writing poetry until his death in 1321.

La Vita Nuova

La Vita Nuova, which translates to 'new life', was Dante's first major work, written around 1293-94. Its 42 chapters, written in the Sweet New Style, discuss Love as an abstract philosophical concept as well as Dante's specific love for Beatrice and other ladies. Dante deifies Beatrice as the supreme object of his love, the inspiration for his poetry, and the savior of his soul. Beatrice merges the divine and the human, and, similar to Christ, her death grieves Dante but ultimately brings him salvation.

To Dante, poetry is the language of love, so La Vita Nuova is Dante's attempt to express his love and devotion to Beatrice. The structure of the work alternates between poems, autobiographical prose narration, and self-reflective commentary. In other words, in La Vita Nuova, Dante describes what happened in his life (usually about love), writes a poem about it, and then explains what that poem means.

The Divine Comedy

Beatrice once again emerges as a major figure in Dante's most famous work, which he wrote in exile between 1308 and 1321. The Divine Comedy is a long poem divided into 3 books that depict Dante's fictional journey through hell (described in book 1, Inferno), purgatory (described in book 2, Purgatorio), and heaven (described in book 3, Paradiso). Virgil guides Dante in the first two books, and Beatrice guides Dante from purgatory into heaven. On their journey, Dante and his guides meet several historical and literary figures who teach him about sin, repentance, and God. This work allegorically presents the Christian plan of salvation, but it also reveals important facts about Dante's life, like his love for the Christ-like Beatrice and his disgust for corrupt politicians and religious figures who wind up in hell.

Dante in Heaven, a fresco by Philipp Veit in the Dante room of Casino Massimo in Rome
Dante in Heaven, a fresco depicted in the Dante room of Casino Massimo in Rome, by Philipp Veit

Dante's Other Works

As an exile, Dante fought to regain his reputation as a respected figure. In Convivio, Dante claims that Lady Philosophy (the fictional manifestation of wisdom) has taught Dante to speak the truths of classic philosophy to his modern Italian culture, in hopes of reforming that culture. To meet that end, Dante writes in vernacular Italian so that common people could read his work. Convivio is a series of poetry and prose in 4 books, and it was started in 1303 but never finished.

Dante picks up on many of these same ideas in his rather philosophical book, De Monarchia (written between 1310-17). In this work, Dante criticized the Pope's power as well as the way religion and politics intertwined in Italy. Dante also argued for a worldwide empire, where there would be no division and no exile.

Famous Quotations

'The moment I saw her I say in all truth that the vital spirit, which dwells in the inmost depths of the heart, began to tremble so violently that I felt the vibration alarmingly in all my pulses, even the weakest of them. As it trembled, it uttered these words: Behold a god more powerful than I who comes to rule over me.' -La Vita Nuova, chapter 2. This describes Dante being enraptured by Beatrice the first time he saw her at age 9.

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