Because 13/14 September 2021 will be the 700th death anniversary of the great Dante Alighieri (one of my literary idols), my A to Z theme this year is all about Dante. Let’s get started with our hero!
Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri was born in Florence (Firenze), Italy around 1265, in May or June, to Alighiero di Bellincione and Gabriella (Bella) degli Abati. Though Dante claimed descent from the ancient Romans, his ancestry can only definitively be traced back to his three-greats-grandpap Adamo degli Elisei.
Sadly, Dante lost his mother when he was only five or six. Between 1275–1278, his dad remarried to Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. Dante’s halfsiblings were Francesco and Gaetana (Tana).
Dante was either educated at home or in a church school. Little is known about his education, but we do know he studied grammar, theology, rhetoric, philosophy, science, debate, Tuscan and Provençal poetry, and Latin language and literature.
Though Dante fell in love with Beatrice Portinari at nine years old, he nevertheless was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati when he was twelve. Dante and Gemma married in 1285 and had four kids, Jacopo, Pietro, Antonia, and Giovanni. Their relationship was arranged by their parents, and they had no say in it. Given that Dante never mentions Gemma in any of his works, and that there’s no evidence of her accompanying him into exile, it doesn’t seem they eventually grew to love one another.
A heated power struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines had been raging in Florence since 1125, and Dante’s family were Guelphs. Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor, and Guelphs backed the Pope. In 1289, Dante fought in the Battle of Campaldino, a decisive victory for Guelphs.
Dante nominally became a pharmacist in 1295, per a law mandating nobles aspiring to political office belong to the Corporations of Arts and Crafts. The guild Dante chose was Art of the Medici and Apothecaries. In that era, apothecaries sold books.
He served in the People’s Council from November 1295–April 1296, and in the Council of the One Hundred from May–December 1296. Dante also served as an ambassador a few times. In 1300, he was one of seven priors of the arts elected for 15 June–15 August. This was the highest government position in Florence.
Trouble began when Dante threw his support behind the White Guelphs instead of the Black Guelphs. As a White Guelph, he was opposed to Papal interference in Florence. His party gained control of the city and expelled the Black Guelphs. In response, Pope Boniface VIII began planning a military occupation of the city.
Prince Charles of Valois, brother of King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, was expected to visit Florence in 1301, on account of the Pope appointing him peacemaker for Tuscany. However, Florentine government officials had offended Papal ambassadors a few weeks earlier and made clear their demands for freedom.
A delegation including Dante was ordered to Rome, and Pope Boniface dismissed everyone but him. While Dante was in Rome, Charles entered Florence with Black Guelphs, destroyed much of the city, and killed many people.
With the Black Guelphs now in control, Dante was condemned to exile and ordered to pay a huge fine. If he tried to return to Florence without paying the fine, he’d be burnt at the stake. Only in June 2008 did Florence finally rescind his criminal record.
Pope Boniface suggested Dante remain in Rome, but his mind was on defeating the Black Guelphs and returning to his hometown. Unfortunately, all the attempted coups he led were unsuccessful, due to infighting.
Dante variously found refuge in Forlì, Bologna, Padua, Verona, Sarzana, Lucca, Treviso, Lunigiana, Casentino, and finally Ravenna. Though some sources believe he also travelled to Paris, no strong evidence has been found for this claim.
With the exception of La Vita Nuova (The New Life), published in 1294, all of Dante’s major works were written after he went into exile. He wrote his masterwork, The Divine Comedy, from about 1304–1320. Other writings include De Monarchia, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Eclogues, Convivio (The Banquet), and Quaestio de Aqua et Terra (A Question of Water and Land).
Dante’s poems and letters were posthumously collected and published, respectively, as Le Rime (The Rhymes) and The Epistles.
Dante passed away of malarial fever on 13/14 September 1321, at age 56. To this day, Ravenna refuses to give his bones to Florence, despite multiple requests for centuries.