Dante, Life of Dante

By Enza Ferreri


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Dante Divine Comedy Florence
Dante Divine Comedy Florence

Dante was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265.

Dante death anniversary was celebrated throughout 2021, commemorating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death occurred in 1321.

In the years that go from 1250 to 1600, Italy reaches in the artistic and literary fields a splendor unprecedented in history.

While Italian painters and sculptors, particularly Florentine, amazed for the masterpieces with which they adorned the churches and the courts of the powerful, the architects reworked the great Greek and Roman lesson to reach a new, original interpretation.

After Dante‘s solitary lesson, Petrarch and Boccaccio dictate the canons of literature which will be followed by Europe for three centuries.

Almost all of the trade of the Mediterranean is in the hands of Italian merchants, and rivers of money flow into the hands of bankers and lords of the various courts of the peninsula. But this artistic and economic greatness is accompanied by a political weakness: the country is divided into small sovereign states, quarrelsome among themselves. This weakness will be felt after the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, called the Magnificent, that occurred in 1492, the same year of the discovery of America, which would have changed forever the routes of the great world trade.

The center of the world would move from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Italy, the country that paid the highest price for that global event and for which the consequences were most devastating, was ironically the country where the prime mover of that revolutionary change, Christopher Columbus, was born.

Dante is, among many other things, a reporter, a chronicler, a historian of those times. Of these turmoils and convulsions Dante was not only a witness, but also a protagonist. That is why his testimony is not impartial. He was not super partes, above the parties, as a historian should be. He was in fact an injured party, and a Florentine one at that, and belonged to factions (being first Guelph against the Ghibellines and then, after his faction’s breakup into Whites and Blacks, a White Guelph), therefore partial and not equanimous.

But no poet has never embodied his own times more than he did.

His life is a document in which, albeit deformed by passion, all the events of Florence and Italy at that point in history are found.

Life of Dante

Dante, a family shortening name for his real name Durante, was born into the Alighieri, a family of small nobility, in Florence in 1265. Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, made a knight by Conrad III, died in the Holy Land in the Second Crusade in 1147.

Dante’s mother Bella died when he was 5 or 6, and his father re-married.

Dante Alighieri spent his childhood in Florence, where he learned the first rudiments of Latin; at the death of his father, when Dante was about 17, he had to take care of family affairs for some time.

Of Dante’s entire childhood we know only one episode, which, however, was to remain decisive for his life and work: the meeting with Beatrice when he was 9. He met her again when he was 18. Historians have debated at length on the reality of this character: some have thought that she was a pure fantasy. But now it is commonly accepted that she was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a banker much esteemed in Florence. Beatrice was almost the same age as Dante, later married Simone de’ Bardi, and died very young in 1290.

When he met her, Dante fell in love with Beatrice, who became for him “the ideal woman” or the “angel woman”. In Florence, the poet had a circle of friends, other young poets the closest of whom were Guido Cavalcanti and Forese Donati, with whom Dante had a sort of duel whose “weapons” were sonnets.

At the age of twenty Dante married Gemma Donati and three children were born from the marriage: Pietro, Jacopo and Antonia. Between 1286 and 1287 he stayed in Bologna; in 1289 he took part in the battle of Campaldino against Arezzo, fighting in the first line of knights.

On March 10, 1302 Dante was exiled from Florence as a result of the city’s internal political battles among factions vying for power.

He will never return to his beloved Florence, although this was his ardent desire, which he expressed as the wish to see again “il mio Bel San Giovanni” (my beautiful Saint John), the octagonal Baptistry standing next to Florence Cathedral (Duomo). Saint John the Baptist is Florence’s patron saint, and Dante was baptized here in this Baptistry. It is the only monument of Florence which has remained intact (although the door is more modern) since Dante’s times, as well as the Bargello.

Around the age of eighteen Dante manifested his literary vocation. He wrote rhymes for Beatrice and collected them in a book, Vita Nova (“New Life”) (1292-93) in which he celebrated his love for her.

Vita Nova is a poetic work according to the convention of the “Dolce Stil Novo” (literally “New Sweet Style”), a style of sonnets, ballades and songs in the vernacular language  (i.e. Italian rather than Latin), in the name of an idealized view of love and womanhood, spiritual and romantic at the same time.

The main stilnovisti (the new style followers) were Dante himself, Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni.

Dante considered women to be goddesses, female beauty to be a joyous mystery, and he did not judge women only by their physical beauty but also by what they conveyed to him.

Some of the Vita Nova’s poems were later included in another book by Dante, Canzoniere.

The first of Dante’s works written immediately after the beginning of his long exile from Florence is the Convivio, which means “Banquet” (of wisdom), an encyclopedia of the most important knowledge for those who want to devote themselves to public and social activity without having completed regular studies, therefore written in the vernacular to be understood by those who have not had the opportunity to study Latin before.

Made up of 15 treatises, the Convivio is the great manifesto of the “civil” purpose that literature must have in the human consortium. The incipit of the Convivio makes it clear that the author is a great expert and follower of Aristotle, who, as was common usage, is referred to as “The Philosopher”.

One of Dante’s fundamental works, written roughly at the same time as Convivio, is the De vulgari eloquentia (“On the Eloquence of the Language of the People”), in Latin, the first scientific treatise on the Italian language.

Dante wrote De vulgari eloquentia in Latin because the audience he addressed with it belonged to the cultural elite of the time who, on the strength of the tradition of classical literature, considered Latin superior to any vernacular, but also to give the vernacular language a greater dignity: Latin was in fact only used to write about law, religion and international treaties, namely subjects of the utmost importance. Dante launched into an impassioned defense of the vernacular, saying that it deserved to become an illustrious language capable of competing with, if not equaling, the language of Virgil.

De vulgari eloquentia contains some astonishing insights. Dante has realized that Latin is now a dead language. But he fears that the “vulgar” one will be overwhelmed by the local dialects for lack of a Court, a Tribunal which would elaborate a national and illustrious “vernacular”. He had already foreseen the tragedy of the Italian language, which is precisely that of never having been formed.

Dante’s Ghibellinism and his monarchical sentiment are best expressed in this treatise, in which he invokes the “courtroom”, that is, national unity around a Court, better even than in De monarchia, composed in honor of Arrigo VII and in order to give a philosophical and juridical foundation to his claims of imperial restoration. Here Dante appears to us only as a nostalgic who dreams of the impossible return to the medieval conception of an Empire and a Papacy that shared spiritual and temporal power over the world.

Italy, for as long as it was subject to the Romans, used the Latin language, but this was going to get gradually corrupted. With the arrival of the barbarians, who used their crude dialects, this language was spoiled even more. Then the Crusades came, and because the nations of Europe were mixed together in that great enterprise and everyone heard the languages of the East, the corruption kept increasing.

There were therefore in Italy two languages: one was Latin, used in laws, notarial acts and sermons; the other was the language of the people, called “vulgar” from the Latin vulgus (people), born from all the above-mentioned corruptions.

Dante Father of Italy

Dante is often called the “father of Italy”. Others call him the “inventor of Italy”.

The “sommo poeta” (supreme poet) did not just give Italians a language, he also gave them a country, an idea of themselves.

As Italian writer and journalist Aldo Cazzullo writes in his book on Dante, A riveder le stelle, and in the newspaper Corriere della Sera celebrating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death in 1321:

There are countries which were born out of a marriage, countries born out of a divorce, countries born out of a war; Italy was born out of the beauty of its art and its literature…

For Dante, Italy had a mission: to reconcile the classical world with Christianity, the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the Popes. From Dante, the idea of Italy arrives up to the present day, through Petrarch, the Renaissance and the Risorgimento…

“Ahi serva Italia di dolore ostello nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta non donna di province, ma bordello…”. Dante loves Italy but is indignant with Italians because they are too divided among themselves: Guelphs and Ghibellines, Whites and Blacks, Montagues and Capulets… (Dante is also the first to write about Montagues and Capulets, centuries before Shakespeare)…

Dante talks about Italy since the first canto [of the Divine Comedy]. He is the one who invented the expression “Belpaese”. Dante gave us not only a language, but above all an idea of ourselves. For him, Italy was not a state, but an idea: a heritage of culture and beauty….

The verse in question, mentioned by Cazzullo, is:

Ahi Pisa, vituperio de le genti
del bel paese là dove ‘l sì suona

It is an invective against the city of Pisa for its treatment of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, concluding the description of his fate in Canto 33 of the Inferno in the Divine Comedy, and means:
“Ah! Pisa, thou opprobrium of the people
Of the fair land there where the ‘Si’ doth sound”
The “Belpaese”, the beautiful country where the word “sì” is used for “yes”, is obviously Italy and that name is used to this day to indicate Italy.

Indro Montanelli, Roberto Gervaso – Storia d’Italia
Mario Tobino – Biondo era e bello