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Dante Alighieri: A Poetic Descent Into Metaphorica

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

Only through a journey into hell can we hope to attain paradise…

His Early Life:

Dante Alighieri was born under the sign of Gemini, he was thought to be
born on May 29, but this is not certain. He was born in Florence, the son of
Alighiero II, his family was one of lower nobility. His mother died when he was
a child and his father when he was eighteen. According to him, the most
profound event in his youth was when in 1274 he met Beatrice, whom scholars
believe to be Beatrice Portinari, a noble woman. It really matter’s not who she
was, for he saw her infrequently and never spoke to her. Nevertheless she
became the focus of his love, and after her death she became his muse. She is a
focal point in his works, including La vita nuova(The New Life) and La divina
commedia(The Divine Comedy). Dante’s education remains an unknown, however his
writing skill and knowledge make it evident that he was well schooled. It is
thought that he attended Florentine schools but also continued learning on his
own. He seemed to be influenced greatly by Brunetto Latini, who has a large
part in The Divine Comedy. His early writings attracted the attention of Guido
Cavalcanti, a popular Italian poet of the day, as Dante’s skill became more
defined the two became friends. It is also thought that Dante studied at the
university in Bologna around the year 1285.
He became involved in some political altercations, he joined the Guelphs,
as opposed to the Chibellines, and he was involved in a battle and emerged
victorious. It was around this time, 1290, that Beatrice died, after she died
he began studying philosophy, he read the works of Boethius and Cicero. He soon
after married Gemma Donati, a member of a noble Florentine Guelph family. He
attempted to settle down and forget Beatrice, however he became more and more
engulfed in the party scene, he discovered the pleasure of banquets, and was
seen engaged in public rhyming contests. These contests were a sort of poetic
insult contest that often decayed into vulgarity. Thankfully, this period did
not last long, in 1295, Dante suddenly became very interested in the political
situation in Florence.

His Adult Life:

In the year 1295 he held several local offices, he was then elected to
be one of the six magistrates of Florence, however, he held this position only
two months. Dante, from 1295 to 1297, was part of the Special Council of the
People, he also took part in the campaign for the prior, and was a member of the
Council of the One Hundred. The political situation in Florence at the time was
very turbulent, the two feuding factions within the Guelph party in Florence,
the Cerchi and the Donati or the Whites and The Blacks were both vying for power.
The Blacks, or Donati, were of noble birth and lineage but were not exceedingly
rich, and they saw the pope as an ally against imperial power. The Whites, or
Cerchi, were not of noble lineage, but had made a vast fortune trading and
wished to become a part of the aristocracy, they wished to remain independent of
all control, papal or imperial. After a particularly violent skirmish the
leaders of both parties were exiled in order to provide peace, however, Pope
Boniface VIII helped the leaders of the Black return. These Blacks seized power
and banned Dante from the city for two years and imposed upon him heavy fines,
he did not pay the fines, and they said he would be killed should he ever return
to Florence.
Dante’s immediate response was a desire to join with the other exiles
and organize, they would retake the city by force. The exiled people were more
concerned with their own interests than retaking Florence, the movement never
even really got underway. There were a few isolated skirmishes, called the Wars
of Mugello, but they were all unsuccessful. Dante was disgusted by the utter
lack of motivation in his companions, and he decided to go his own way.
Dante spent time in Northern Italy and in Verona, he made his way to
Paris around 1307, there he joined the Ghibellines, hoping to unite all of
Europe under the reign of an “enlightened emperor”1. There are no certain
records documenting Dante’s travels so most of the information on this period is
mere speculation. It is thought that while in Northern Italy Dante wrote De
Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning the Common Speech) and the unfinished
Convivio(Banquet) He probably also began The Divine Comedy around 1307.
Dante once again became engulfed in politics around 1310 with the
arrival of Henry VII King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Henry wanted to
bring all of Italy together, Dante supported him in this endeavor. He wrote to
many Italian princes and political leaders asking them to welcome Henry, Dante
thought this would end the continuing feuds between Italy’s cities. Some
Florentines started a movement against Henry that spread throughout Italy, when
Henry finally acted his movement failed miserably. Henry died in 1313 and this
obviously brought Dante’s hopes to an end. During this time Dante probably
wrote De Monarchia(On Monarchy)

Final Years:

Dante was invited to return to Florence in 1316, however, he was to be
treated as a pardoned criminal. Dante refused these terms and continued to live
in exile. He spent his last days in Ravenna, dying there on September 13 or 14
in 1321. In the last years of his life Dante wrote Quaestion de Acqua et
Terra(Question of Water and of Earth) and two Latin eclogues.

Florence During Dante’s Time:

Dante lived in Florence around the year 1300. The population then was
around 90,000 people in the city itself and 80,000 in the surrounding rural
areas. The city was run by the following public officials: The mayor, the
public defender, the chief of justice, the captain of the guard, the tax
assessor, the official in charge of regulations concerning women’s ornaments,
the administrator of the trade regulations, the official in charge of the wool
guild, the ecclesiastical officials, and the grand inquisitor. Florence was a
bustling city and the center of Italian culture during this time period and on
through the Renaissance.

His Works:

His first important work was La vita nuova(The New Life), written not
that long after Beatrice’s death. It chronicled, in the form of sonnets woven
together with prose, his love for her, his premonition of her death, her actual
death and his commitment that he would write a work that would be a worthy
monument for her. While remaining in relative obscurity when compared to The
Divine Comedy, The New Life is considered a great work, it was of a new format,
the finest work of the “new sweet style”1 of contemporary Florentine vernacular
poetry. It is considered to be one of the greatest works of European verse ever,
Dante portrays his subject using “lofty idealism”1 and suggests a “spiritual
De Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning Common Speech) was written around 1305.
It is basically an argument for the Italian Language, it defends vernacular and
it acts basically a justification for Dante’s writing in vernacular.
Convivio(Banquet) was written between 1304 and 1307 and was intended to
be a series of fifteen books, on all the knowledge of the time. The first book
was to be an introduction, and the other fourteen were to take the form of
commentary on fourteen poems of Dante, sadly however only four books were
De Monarchia(On Monarchy) is a book of Dante’s philosophy, including the
need for a supranational Holy Roman Emperor and the need for complete separation
of church and state.
Quaestio de Acqua et Terra(The Question of Water and of Earth) written
near the end of Dante’s life was a fairly minor work, it basically concerned
whether or not the water at any point on the surface of the planet was higher
than the land. Quite an important topic indeed…
Dante’s crowning achievement, The Divine Comedy takes readers on a
descent into hell. Dante’s strong religious background sets the backdrop for
this terrifying journey. Readers look onward as human forms are condemned, and
as humans are lifted into paradise. This work is often misunderstood, the story
is told that Dante was once walking down the street when he saw that two girls
shrank away from him. One spoke to the other, “Did you see him? He’s the one
who comes and goes to Hell and brings back news of the damned who live there”
The other one answered, “Ah, that’s why his complexion is so dark. The smoke
must have blackened him” Many people during his time viewed him as a sorcerer
or a mystic.
This work can be interpreted on many levels, according to one source the
“literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical”1. It’s meaning varies upon the
reader, one person may see a beautiful piece of literature, while another may
see a frightening glimpse into their future. Some may denounce The Divine
Comedy as heresy, while others still may embrace it and welcome it’s lessons
into their lives. It is a story of hellish torment, and eternal paradise, it is
a love story, it is the story of man who becomes lost in the forest of life and
finds his way by means of strong guiding forces(the poet Virgil, Beatrice, The
Deity). It is the story of coming once again into life and embracing it for
what is, a journey through darkness, and an emergence into light, be that fiery
red, or divine white.


1. Infopedia 2.0 Copyright 1996 Softkey Multimedia, Inc.
2. Dante Chronology Copyright 1995 ILT
3. Dante, His Life, His Times, His Works Copyright 1968
Arnoldo Mondadori-Milano Translated From Italian by Giuseppini T.
Salvadori and Bernice L. Lewis
4. Volume XI The Chronicle by Giovanni Villani

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