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Summary Article: Dante, Alighieri (1265-1321) from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

A native son of the powerful Florentine city-state, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) has long been celebrated as a politician, linguist, poet, and visionary. In canto 15 of Paradiso of the Divine Comedy Dante traces his heritage to the crusading knight Cacciaguida (c.1091-1147). He also asserts that he was educated by the notary Brunetto Latini (Inferno, 15) and by the friars (Convivio, 2.12.7). In medieval Florence these were probably either the Franciscans at Santa Croce or the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella. In the context of the Florentine Renaissance, Dante's writings were strongly influenced by authors who had recently been rediscovered, including Horace, Ovid, and Virgil. The only lifelike portrait of Dante is a fresco in the Bargello in Florence, which was painted by his friend, the renowned artist Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337).

While Dante is best remembered for his theological wisdom in the Divine Comedy, he was also responsible for the advancement of the Tuscan dialect; the ancestor of modern, standard Italian. Among his important early works are La vita nuova (New Life) and the Convivio (The Banquet). The former he dedicated to a Florentine girl named Beatrice Portinari, whom he met when he was 9 and she was 8. Having left an indelible mark on Dante's soul, she is the personification of divine love in several of his works. Beatrice married the banker Simone dei Bardi in 1287; Dante's beloved muse died just three years later at the age of 24, yet her enduring impact on his theological imagination cannot be overstated. Along with the Roman poet Virgil and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Beatrice is immortalized as one of Dante's three guides in the Divine Comedy.

A member of the White Guelph political party, Dante served a term as one of six priors of Florence in the year 1300 but was soon fined and exiled by his rivals in the Black Guelph faction. Under penalty of death should he ever enter Florentine territory, Dante left behind his wife, Gemma Donati, and four children: Pietro, Jacopo, Giovanni, and Antonia (Suor Beatrice). In 1302 Dante first went to Gargonza, then to Mugello, Forlí, Verona, Arezzo, followed by several cities in northern Italy, all the while earning his living by lecturing at various universities. Dante spent his final three years in Ravenna, where he thrived under the patronage of Guido Novello da Polenta (d.1330). Dante scholars agree that the last 20 years of his life in exile fueled the political discourse that permeates the Divine Comedy.

Eventually Dante was joined in Ravenna by three of his children. In 1321 he embarked on a diplomatic mission to the Doge of Venice, which ended badly. Having been refused permission to return to Ravenna by sea, Dante and his companions were forced to travel overland through the malariainfested swamps of the Marche, which led to his death on September 13, 1321. He was buried in the church of San Pier Maggiore, today called San Francesco, where he is interred in a private chapel. For nearly 700 years the Florentines have sought in vain the custody of the remains of the gran poeta.

SEE ALSO: Eschatology; Literature, Medieval

References and Suggested Readings
  • Casciani, S. (ed.) (2006). Dante and the Franciscans. Brill Leiden, The Netherlands.
  • Dante Society of America (1966-present). Dante Studies. Cambridge, MA.
  • Gallagher, J. (1999). A modern reader's guide to the Divine Comedy. Liguori/Triumph Publications Liguori, MO.
  • Jacoff, R. (ed.) (1993). The Cambridge companion to Dante. Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Lansing, R. (ed.) (2000). The Dante encyclopedia. Garland New York.
  • Luke, H. (1989). From dark wood to white rose: Journey and transformation in Dante's Divine Comedy. Parabola Books New York.
  • Mazzotta, G. (1987). Dante, poet of the desert: History and allegory in the Divine Comedy. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.
  • Amanda D. Quantz
    Wiley ©2012

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