Biography of Dante Alighieri illustrations by Gustav Doré
Dante Alighieri, the famous author of the poem The Divine Comedy, was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy. At the early age of nine, he met a woman named Beatrice, who he later fell in love with. He even wrote his first book, “Vita Nuova” or, New Life, about his love for Beatrice. She married another man, and died in 1290. Dante later found and married a woman named Gemma di Manetto Donati, and had four children with her. He was eventually exiled for political reasons, and never saw his wife again, although eventually he did reunite with some of his children. Until his exile he had been actively involved in the politics of the time, belonging to the “Guelf” party (the only other party were the “Ghibellines”). After his exile he shunned politics; Florence, his home city, had him sentenced to death if he should ever return there. and eventually began to work on his brilliant and epic poem called The Divine Comedy. In 1317, he settled at Ravenna, where he completed his poem. He died there, at the age of 56, in 1321.
Dante’s poem, The Divine Comedy, is about Dante himself. He becomes lost in a wood, and soon is found by the poet Virgil, who takes him on a journey through Hell where they see the various torments of all the poor sinners there. Next, Virgil leads him through Purgatory, where the healing punishments of repented sinners are shown. Finally, he journeys through heaven, guided by his love, Beatrice. The entire poem is also an allegory of man’s falling into sin, and subsequent redemption. So we see that Dante starts by falling into Hell, and then he goes through Purgatory, finally to the glorious beauty of Heaven.
Dante is often misrepresented as having spitefully placed his political enemies in Hell in his poem. This is not exactly true, because the story is not only literal. It has allegorical meaning as well, and he often puts people in hell simply to make a point about their faults. It need not be assumed he was acting out of malicious hate. He puts his friend and teacher Brunetto Latini in Hell, so obviously he does not reserve Hell only for his enemies.
An interesting and relevant fact about The Divine Comedy is that it was one of the first great works to be written completely in Italian. Initially, some had contested his writing of this poem in the vernacular. Italian is a conglomeration of different dialects of Latin that have formed over the years, eventually gelling into one language, and some thought it beneath the level of poetry that Dante was writing. Instead, Dante was able to show that Italian really is a wonderful language that can be used skillfully to write good poetry.
Dante gave us a truly amazing poem of awe-inspiring beauty that shows us a vivid Catholic vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. –Charles Geter, March 14, 2008