Dante Alighieri is arguably the most famous Renaissance poet. Author of The Divine Comedy, he was born in Florence, Italy, in May 1265, into a family of noble lineage but humble circumstances. He was born at a time when capitalism was just emerging on the scene of world history and beginning to replace feudalism. Dante’s life and work was closely bound up with these monumental transformations which were taking place in society, and Dante has been accurately characterized as being both the last poet of the Middle Ages and the first poet of modern times.
With their incessant intrigues and wars, the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages dealt with each other as sovereign powers. At the same time, they recognized the “universal authority” of Rome. Both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope claimed the political authority of Rome and Italy was divided between the partisans of the Emperor, the Ghibellines, and the partisans of the Pope, the Guelphs. The Ghibellines were originally the feudal lords who lived in their castles on the hills around the city. As descendants of Germanic invaders, they naturally looked to the Emperor, in Germany, as their ally and protector. The Guelphs, on the other hand, were originally capitalists and looked to the Pope not as a spiritual leader but as a political power to help them in their struggle against the feudal lords.
The Guelphs gained firm control of Florence in 1266, the year after Dante’s birth, beginning thirty years of prosperity, artistic and intellectual life and comparative peace. Dante was born into a Guelph family in 1295, he began to take an active role in the democratic politics of Florence, participating in the deliberations of the city Council and serving as Florentine Ambassador on various occasions. In 1300 he was elected as one of the six priors of Florence – the highest office in the city.
Power struggles between different families had long been a feature of Florentine politics. Soon after Dante’s election, a major power struggle erupted which eventually involved all Italy. The two sides were known as the “Whites” and the “Blacks.” When street fights between the two sides broke out in May 1300, Dante and the other priors had the leaders of both sides arrested. But Pope Bonifazio VIII, whose finances depended on the Florentine bankers who belonged to the Black party, ordered that the leaders of the Blacks be released. When Dante and the other priors refused, the Pope excommunicated them.
In conjunction with Charles of Valois, brother of the King of France, the Pope managed to overthrow the legitimate government of Florence and install the Blacks in office. Dante, who was in Rome trying to negotiate a settlement to the dispute, was tried in absentia in January 1302 for stirring up quarrels and defiance of the Pope, found guilty and banished with the loss of all his property.
When Dante failed to appear for his sentencing on March 10, it was declared that he would be burned alive if he re-entered Florence. In 1315 the Florentine rulers offered to allow Dante to return to Florence if he submitted to various humiliations. Dante refused, declaring that exile was better than dishonour. For the next 20 years, until his death in September 1321, Dante lived in exile, living in various cities such as San Godenzo, Forli, Verona and Ravenna.
It was during his period of exile that Dante made his greatest contributions to world literature. Among , he wrote a treatise aimed at establishing Italian as a literary language on equal footing with Latin. He also wrote an important political treatise in which he called for the separation of Church and State and the non-intervention of the Church in secular affairs.
His greatest work is The Divine Comedy, the long poem consisting of “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.” The work was originally entitled Commedia, the adjective Divina being added in the 16th century. It tells of the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.
The poem consists of 100 cantos and more than 14,000 lines. It was written in the form of a religious allegory and reflected the limitations of the world outlook of the 14th century. Nonetheless, in contrast to the literature of the Middle Ages, The Divine Comedy reasserted the dignity of man as an historical being and depicted man in strong realistic colours.
Dante’s other works include La Vita Nuova (the New Life), written in 1292, a collection of prose and lyrics; the Convivio, an unfinished work written roughly between 1304 and 1307, is a kind of encyclopedia written in the vernacular of the knowledge of Dante’s time. It touches on many areas of learning, not only philosophy but also politics, linguistics, science, astronomy, and history. It consists of four trattati, or “books”: a prefatory one, plus three books that each include a canzone (a type of lyric resembling a madrigal) and a prose allegorical interpretation or commentary of the poem that goes off in multiple thematic directions. He wrote de Vulgare Eloquentia when he went into exile to defend the value of works written in the vernacular. It gives amongst other things rules for the Italian vernacular.
His book De Monarchia (Of Monarchy) written circa 1312, was inspired by the hope that Henry VII, elected King of the Romans in 1308, could unite Italy and return good government to Florence. It is a Latin treatise on secular and religious power which argues for a world government under the Holy Roman Emperor who receives authority directly from God.
Dante was 56 when he died in Ravenna in 1321 having never returned to Florence. The full title of his masterpiece remains: The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by Citizenship, Not by Morals. One biography of Dante reads:
“The City of Florence later regretted Dante’s loss and requested the return of his remains from Ravenna on several occasions. In 1829, a tomb was built in the Basilica of Santa Croce, inscribed with a line from the Inferno’s fourth canto: ‘onorate l’altissimo poeta,’ (‘honor the most exalted poet.’) In 2008, 700 years after the poet’s death, the city council of Florence rescinded the charges against Dante, and apologized publicly for his exile.”