Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321
"That singular splendor of the Italian race," as his first biographer, Boccaccio, called him, was born, a lawyer's son, in Florence in May 1265. He was baptized Durante, later contracted into Dante (the name means "the much-enduring" and "the giver"). In his Vita Nuova (the New Life), he relates how he first set eyes on "the glorious lady of his heart, Beatrice," he then being about nine years of age and she a few months younger. To Boccaccio we owe the generally accepted fact that she was the daughter of Folco Portinari, for Dante himself never gives the slightest clue as to her family name. But their chance meeting in May 1274 determined the whole future course of the poet's life. The story of his boyish passion is told with pathos in the Vita Nuova. There is no evidence that any similar feelings were aroused in the heart of Beatrice herself. She was married early to Simone de' Bardi, but neither this nor the poet's own subsequent marriage interfered with his pure and utterly Platonic devotion to her, which intensified after her death, on June 9, 1290. Shortly after, Dante married Gemma Donati, the daughter of a powerful Guelph family. That it was an unhappy marriage is open to interpretation -- what is certain is that after Dante's exile he never appears to have seen his wife again.
In 1289 Dante fought at Campaldino, where Florence defeated the Ghibellines, and was at the capitulation of Caprona. He was registered in one of the city guilds (of the Apothecaries) being entered as "Dante d'Aldighieri, poeta." In 1300, after filling some minor public offices he attained the dignity of one of the six priors of Florence -- a dignity lasting only two months. It was towards the "White Guelphs," or more moderate section that his sympathies tended. As prior, he procured the banishment of the heads and leaders of the rival factions, showing characteristic sternness and impartiality to Guelph and Ghinelline, White and Black, alike. The partiality shown was a prominent feature in the accusation against Dante. In 1301, in alarm at the threatened interference of Charles of Valois, Dante was sent on an embassy to Rome to Pope Boniface VIII. From that embassy he never returned, nor did he ever again set foot in Florence. Charles espoused the side of the Neri or the Blacks and in January 1302 a sentence of banishment went against Dante and others. This was followed by a more severe sentence on March 10, which condemned them to be burned alive if ever caught, and which was repeated in 1311 and again in 1315.
During his exile Dante is alleged to have visited Paris and England. Boccaccio had Dante in France during his exile and suggested that he was recalled to Italy and politics by the election of Henry of Luxembourg as emperor and his visit to Italy, where no emperor had set foot for fifty years. The exile's hopes were now roused but were finally crushed by Henry's unexpected death on August 24, 1313, after which Dante took refuge in Romagna, and finally in Ravenna, where he remained until his death, on September 14, 1321. He was buried at Ravenna, and there he remains, restored in 1865 to the original sarcophagus. Dante had seven children, six sons and one daughter, Beatrice, a nun at Ravenna. His family became extinct in the 16th century.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis