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Author Information: Dante Alighieri

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Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy, in May 1265. In present day terms, Dante would be considered to be born of a genteel stock that was neither wealthy nor especially prominent. His father was Alighiero di Bellincione d’Alighiero and was a member of the lesser nobility.

Little is known about Dante’s early education. In fact, no relic, signature, or manuscript has survived to present day. Nonetheless, scholars agree that he probably received elementary instruction in grammar, language and philosophy at one of the Franciscan schools in the city and was raised Catholic. During his teens, Dante showed interest in literature and undertook an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a famed poet and prose writer who wrote in the Italian vernacular. By way of Latini’s direction, Dante began to study literature and the rhetoric and began to associate himself with several respected Florentine poets. Because of this association, Dante met Guio Cavalcani who helped Dante refine his literary skills. In 1283, Dante reached his 18th birthday and inherited a modest amount of money from his parents who had died when he was younger. Two years later, in 1285, Dante married Gemma Donati under the arrangement of his father back in 1277. She later bore him four children. In 1287, Dante enrolled in the University of Bologna and completed at least one course. After his formal education, Dante enlisted in the Florentine army.

The death of one of his childhood friends proved to be a turning point in his life. At the age of nine, Dante was introduced to Bice, or Beatrice, Portinari in 1274. According to studies by Boccacio, her death in 1290 propelled him to begin an intensive study in the philosophical works of Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle. In fact, Beatrice is alluded to in several of his other works but specifically The Divine Comedy where she is commemorated as the ideal lady who guides him to redemption in Paradiso. However, it is often criticized that Beatrice was actually a term that Dante used as a representative of the perfect, holy female. Nonetheless, the death urged Dante to break free from his earlier directed writing style and establish his own style in innovative canzoni, or lyrical poems.

During this time, Dante also became increasingly involved with politics. In 1295 he enrolled in the Guild of Doctors and Pharmacists and a year later he participated in a citizen’s government known as the Council of the Hundred. He was elected as one of the six offices of president of the Florentine Guilds in 1300. As a well-known politician, Dante was active with the White Guelfs, a political party that had papal interest and partially represented the Guelf’s party. Their main opposing party was the Ghibellines who were for an Imperial Florence. The political scene became more confusing the Guelf’s split into two fractions, the Blacks and Whites. The Whites were not as anti-Ghibelline as the Blacks, but the Blacks had the support of the papal forces in Florence. After a coup in 1313 by the Blacks, Dante fled the city and lost hope of ever returning. He remained in Verona and a year later moved to Revenna where he died in 1321.

Although Dante is most famous for his poem The Divine Comedy, he also wrote some other highly influential works. These include a collection of early canznoi published in La vita nuova (c. 1293; The New Life, see also Vide Cor Meum). Written in commemoration of Beatrice’s death, The New Life was a new, innovative approach to love poetry and equates love with a mystical and spiritual revelation. In fact, Petrarch and Boccacio soon copied and used the style in their own poetry after his death. Il convivio (c. 1304-07; The Banquet) was another collection of canzoni. The rest of Dante’s works include De vulagari eloquentia (1303-07; Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue), which traced the origins of languages and their dialects and how they relate to vernacular poetry, and De monarchia (c. 1313; On Monarchy), a Latin treatise which analyzes the poet’s political philosophy and was written in affect to his current involvement with politics.

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