Early life and family
Dante's birthdate is unknown, though he tells us he was born under the
sign of Gemini, placing it in May or June. He was born into a prominent
Florentine family (whose real surname was Alaghieri), with loyalties to
the Guelfs, a political alliance involved in complex opposition to the
Ghibellines; Guelfs themselves were divided into White Guelfs and Black
Guelfs. Dante pretended that his family descended from the ancient Romans
(Inferno, XV, 76), but the earliest relative he can mention by name is
Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about
His father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a White Guelf, but suffered
no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the battle of Montaperti, and this
safety reveals a certain personal or family prestige.
Dante's mother was Donna Bella degli Abati; "Bella" stands for
Gabriella, but also means "beautiful", while Abati (the name
of a powerful family) means friars; a really curious name. She died when
Dante was 5 or 6 years old, and Alighiero soon married Miss Lapa di Chiarissimo
Cialuffi. (It is uncertain whether he really married her, as widowers
had social limitations in these matters). This woman definitely bore two
children, Dante's brother Francesco and sister Tana (Gaetana).
When Dante was 12, in 1277, he was promised in marriage to Gemma, daughter
of Messer Manetto Donati. Contracting marriages at this early age was
quite common, and was an important ceremony, requiring formal acts subscribed
in front of a notary.
Dante had several sons with Gemma. As often happens with famous people,
many children pretended to be Dante's offspring; however, it is likely
that Jacopo, Pietro, and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia became
a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice. Another man, Giovanni, claimed
to be his son and was in exile with Dante, but some doubts were advanced
about his claim.
Education and Poetry
Not much is known about Dante's education, and it is presumed he studied
We know he studied Tuscan poetry, at a time when the Scuola poetica siciliana,
a cultural group from Sicily, was becoming known in Tuscany. His interests
brought him to discover Provençal minstrels and poets, and Latin
culture (with an obvious particular devotion to Virgil).
It should be underlined that during the "Secoli Bui" (Dark Ages),
Italy had become a mosaic of small states, so Sicily was as far (culturally
and politically) from Tuscany as Provence was: the regions did not share
a language, culture, or easy communications. Nevertheless, we can assume
that Dante was a keen up-to-date intellectual with international interests.
When 18, he met Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia, and soon
after Brunetto Latini; together they became the leaders of Dolce Stil
Nuovo. Brunetto later received a special mention in the Divine Comedy
(Inferno, XV, 82), for what he had taught Dante. Other studies are reported,
or deduced from Vita Nuova or the Divine Comedy, regarding painting and
While still young he also met Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of Folco
Portinari. It has been said that Dante had seen her only once and never
spoke to her (but other versions may be equally valid).
It is hard to decipher what this love consisted of, but something extremely
important for Italian culture was happening: as it is in the sign of this
love that Dante gave his imprint to the Stil Novo and would lead poets
and writers to discover the themes of Love (Amore), which had never been
so emphasized before. Love for Beatrice (as in a different manner Petrarca
would show for his Laura) would apparently be the reason for poetry and
for living, together with political passions.
When Beatrice died in 1290, Dante tried to find a refuge in Latin literature.
From the Convivio we know that he had read Boethius's De consolatione
philosophiae and Cicero's De amicitia.
He then dedicated himself to philosophical studies at religious schools
like the Dominican one in Santa Maria Novella. He took part in the disputes
that the two principal monastic orders (Franciscan and Dominican) publicly
or indirectly held in Florence, the former explaining the doctrine of
the mystics and of San Bonaventura, the latter presenting Saint Thomas
His "excessive" passion for philosophy would later be criticised
by Beatrice, in Purgatory.\n\n
Florence and Politics
Dante also found time to be a soldier, and in 1289 fought in the battle
of Campaldino (June 11), with Florentine knights against Arezzo, then
in 1294 he was among those knights who escorted Carlo Martello (son of
Charles of Anjou and the hero of Poitiers) while he was in Florence.
He also became a doctor and a pharmacist; he did not intend to take up
those professions, but a law issued in 1295 required that nobles who wanted
to assume public office had to be enrolled in one of the Corporazioni
di Arti e Mestieri, so Dante obtained quick admission to the apothecaries'
guild and could consequently begin his political career. The profession
he chose was not entirely inapt, since at the time books were sold from
apothecaries' shops. As a politician, he accomplished little of relevance,
but he held various offices over a number of years in a city undergoing
some political agitation.
The Guelfs were divided into the two factions of White Guelfs (Guelfi
Bianchi) (led by Vieri dei Cerchi) and Black Guelfs (Guelfi Neri) (led
by Corso Donati). "Colours" were chosen when Vieri dei Cerchi
gave his protection to the Grandi's family in Pistoia, which was locally
called "La parte bianca" (the white party); Corso Donati had
consequently protected the rival (parte nera), and these colors became
the distinctive colours of the parties at Florence.
Being engaged in politics was not easy when Pope Boniface VIII was planning
a military occupation of Florence, because this involved issues which
transcended the city, and were beyond the scope of a local official. In
1301, Charles de Valois, brother of Philippe le Bel king of France, was
expected to visit Florence because the Pope had appointed him peacemaker
for Tuscany. But the city's government had already treated the Pope's
ambassadors badly a few weeks before, seeking independence from Papal
influences. It was thought wise to consider the hypothesis that Charles
de Valois could eventually have received other unofficial orders. So the
council sent a delegation to Rome, in order to ascertain the Pope's intentions.
Dante was the chief of this delegation.
Exile and Death
Boniface quickly sent away the other representatives and asked Dante alone
to remain in Rome. At the same time (November 1, 1301) Charles de Valois
was entering Florence with Black Guelfs, who in the next six days destroyed
everything and killed most of their enemies. A new government was installed
of Black Guelfs, and Cante dei Gabbrielli di Gubbio was named "Podesta'"
(mayor). Dante was condemned to exile for 2 years, and to pay a huge amount
of money. The poet was still in Rome, where the Pope had "suggested"
he stay, and was therefore considered an absconder. He could not pay his
fine and was finally condemned to perpetual exile. If he were ever caught
by Florentine soldiers, he would have been summarily executed.
The poet took part in several attempts by the White Guelfs to regain the
power they had lost, but these failed due to treachery. Dante, bitter
at the treatment he had received at the hands of his enemies, also grew
disgusted with the infighting and ineffectiveness of his erstwhile allies
and vowed, in his own words, to become a party of one. At this point he
began sketching the foundations for the Comedy, a work in 100 cantos,
divided into three books of thirty-three cantos each, with a single introductory
He went to Verona as a guest of Bartolomeo Della Scala, then moved to
Sarzana (Liguria), and after this he is supposed to have lived for some
time in Lucca with Madame Gentucca, who made his stay comfortable (and
was later gratefully mentioned in Purgatorio XXIV,37). Some sources say
that he was in Paris, too, between 1308 and 1310.Other sources, even less
trustworthy, take him to Oxford.
In 1310 Arrigo VII of Luxembourg was invading Italy; Dante saw in him
the chance of revenge, so he wrote to him (and to other Italian princes)
several public letters violently inciting them to destroy the Black Guelfs.
Mixing religion and private concerns, he invoked the worst anger of God
against his town, suggesting several particular targets that coincided
with his personal enemies.
In Florence Baldo d'Aguglione pardoned most of the White Guelfs in exile
and allowed them to come back; Dante had however exceeded any limit in
his violent letters to Arrigo, and he was not recalled.
In 1312, Arrigo assaulted Florence and defeated the Black Guelfs, but
there is no evidence that Dante was involved. Some say he refused to participate
in the assault on his city by a foreigner; others suggest that his name
had became unpleasant for White Guelfs too and that any trace of his passage
had carefully been removed. In 1313 Arrigo died, and with him any residual
hope for Dante to see Florence again. He returned to Verona, where Cangrande
Della Scala allowed him to live in a certain security and, presumably,
in a fair amount of prosperity. Cangrande was admitted to Dante's Paradise
(Paradiso XVII, 76).
In 1315, Florence was forced by Uguccione della Faggiuola (the military
officer controlling the town) to grant an amnesty to people in exile.
Dante too was in the list of citizens to be pardoned. But Florence required
that, apart from paying a sum of money, these citizens agreed be treated
as public offenders in a religious ceremony. Dante refused this outrageous
formula, and preferred to remain in exile.
When Uguccione finally defeated Florence, Dante's death sentence was converted
into confinement, at the sole condition that he go to Florence to swear
that he would never enter the town again. Dante didn't go. His condemnation
to death was confirmed and extended to his sons. Dante still hoped late
in life that he might be invited back to Florence on honorable terms.
For Dante, exile was nearly a form of death, stripping him of much of
Read the Award-winning paper on Dante
by Kyle Anderson.
The Middle Ages
The Black Plague