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Dante Alighieri

1265-1321. Italian poet. Born in Florence of a family that had a slight claim to nobility, Dante (a contraction of Durante) began early to write poetry and to take part in the political life of the city. While on an embassy to Rome as one of the priors of Florence, one of the opposing factions that supported Boniface VIII (whose secular ambitions Dante opposed) took control of the city. Several charges were lodged against Dante, and he was fined and exiled from the city. He never saw his wife or Florence again, though later he was given permission to return. He died at the court of Guido da Polenta in Ravenna, where he is buried.

Dante's literary achievement is universally acclaimed. His works include La Vita Nuova; La Divina Commedia (Commedia originally; Divina was added later); Convivio, an allegorical poem and numerous treatises. He wrote also several epistles and eclogues. A Latin treatise, De Monarchia, sets forth his political views on the conflict between the church and the Holy Roman Empire.

The poet's idealized love for Beatrice Portinari was first told in The New Life, but Dante is remembered best for The Divine Comedy. Composed of 100 cantos divided into The Inferno, the Purgatory and The Paradise, written in terza rima, this “cathedral in words” represents the poet astray in a dark wood (sin) at Eastertide. The Philosophy|philosopher Virgil appears and offers to act as guide through Hell and up to Mount Purgatory. Then Beatrice conducts him to the heights of Paradise, where he contemplates the glory ineffable. The account is an elaborate Christian allegory of the soul's vision of sin, its purging from guilt and stain, and its rising in newness of life. This profound vision is imaginatively expressed in simple but vigorous style.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • C. Williams, The Figure of Beatrice (1943)

  • M. Barbi, Life of Dante (translated and edited by Paul Ruggiers, 1954)

  • D. Sayers (ed.), The Divine Comedy (1955)

  • T. Bergin, Dante (1965)