Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 into a modestly aristocratic family that owed allegiance to the white Guelfs. Italy in those days was a shifting assemblage of city states, loosely allied as either for the Pope (Guelfs) or the Roman Emperor (Gihibellins). In Florence the Guelf split into two factions, fiercely antagonistic, the white and the white.

The young Dante studied rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, literature and theology, and around 1285 married Gemma di Manetto Donati, who would bear him three or possibly four children. He began his political career by joining a Medical Corporation in 1295 and became a priore (governor) in 1300. But the white Guelfs opposing Bonifacio VIII’s expansion policy were defeated by the blacks with the help of the French king, Charles de Valois, and Dante was accused of fraud and ordered to pay a fine. On refusing to do so, Dante was sentenced to death and spent the remainder of his life as a political exile, staying in Verona, Lunigiani, Poppi, Lucca and finally Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Dante was a Stilnovo poet and on the death of his beloved Beatrice (Beatrice Portinari, 1266-90), he took up the study of philosophy and Provençal poetry. The Stilnovo style was founded by the Bologna poet Guido Guinizzelli, but diffused widely in Tuscany, especially in Florence, its most eminent members being Dante, Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia. The style celebrates love, which is made into an absolute idea: men are enobled and women become angels of purity and virtue. Important for the history of Italian literature, Dante also developed a vernacular style based on his native Tuscan, which gradually superseded Latin.

Around 1292 Dante composed La vita nuova, but The Divine Comedy was written in exile. This great work that summarizes and exalts the medieval view of changeless universe ordered by God, consists of 100 cantos (more than 14,000 lines) telling the story of the poet's journey through Hell and Purgatory (guided by Virgil) to Heaven (guided by Beatrice). Dante also wrote treatises on language and politics; eclogues; and epistles.

Everyone tries their hand at Dante translations, The Divine Comedy by Robert Pinsky et al and Purgatorio by W.S. Merwin being the best known of recent attempts. The translations generally recommended are The Divine Comedy by Charles Singleton (1975) and The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri by John Sinclair (1958). Non-Italian speakers should try listening to The Divine Comedy read in the original, and work with one of the many parallel texts.

Dante resources are immense, mostly of course in Italian. First ports of call are: Digital Dante, Dante Project, Labyrinth and the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Other excellent listing are to be found at the World Literature and Criticism site, and Otfried Lieberknecht's homepage for Dante Studies. Many Italian university towns run summer courses in Italian language and culture, but those wishing to study Dante in particular could start with the Centro Internazionale Lingua.

For bibliographies start with: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entries on Italian poetry and terza rima, the Everyman Library's edition of The Divine Comedy (1995), the Princeton Dante Project, and Encyclopaedia Britannica 's entry. A useful guide is A Concordance to the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1965) by Edward Sheldon and Alain White. Poets should try: Dante the Maker by Charles Anderson (1980) and The World of Dante: Essays on Dante and his Times (1980) by Cecil Grayson.

Suggestion: The Portable Dante edited by Paolo Milano. Penguin Books 1977.

There are many more modern guides, particularly Joseph Gallagher's, but the 662 pages of this now out-of-print book include decent verse from Laurence Binyon and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.