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Dante Alighieri: A Poetic Descent into Metaphorical Hell

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

Only through a journey into hell can we hope to attain paradise…

His Early Life:

Dante Alighieri was born under the sign of Gemini, he was thought to be

born on May 29, but this is not certain. He was born in Florence, the son of

Alighiero II, his family was one of lower nobility. His mother died when he was

a child and his father when he was eighteen. According to him, the most

profound event in his youth was when in 1274 he met Beatrice, whom scholars

believe to be Beatrice Portinari, a noble woman. It really matter’s not who she

was, for he saw her infrequently and never spoke to her. Nevertheless she

became the focus of his love, and after her death she became his muse. She is a

focal point in his works, including La vita nuova(The New Life) and La divina

commedia(The Divine Comedy). Dante’s education remains an unknown, however his

writing skill and knowledge make it evident that he was well schooled. It is

thought that he attended Florentine schools but also continued learning on his

own. He seemed to be influenced greatly by Brunetto Latini, who has a large

part in The Divine Comedy. His early writings attracted the attention of Guido

Cavalcanti, a popular Italian poet of the day, as Dante’s skill became more

defined the two became friends. It is also thought that Dante studied at the

university in Bologna around the year 1285.

He became involved in some political altercations, he joined the Guelphs,

as opposed to the Chibellines, and he was involved in a battle and emerged

victorious. It was around this time, 1290, that Beatrice died, after she died

he began studying philosophy, he read the works of Boethius and Cicero. He soon

after married Gemma Donati, a member of a noble Florentine Guelph family. He

attempted to settle down and forget Beatrice, however he became more and more

engulfed in the party scene, he discovered the pleasure of banquets, and was

seen engaged in public rhyming contests. These contests were a sort of poetic

insult contest that often decayed into vulgarity. Thankfully, this period did

not last long, in 1295, Dante suddenly became very interested in the political

situation in Florence.

His Adult Life:

In the year 1295 he held several local offices, he was then elected to

be one of the six magistrates of Florence, however, he held this position only

two months. Dante, from 1295 to 1297, was part of the Special Council of the

People, he also took part in the campaign for the prior, and was a member of the

Council of the One Hundred. The political situation in Florence at the time was

very turbulent, the two feuding factions within the Guelph party in Florence,

the Cerchi and the Donati or the Whites and The Blacks were both vying for power.

The Blacks, or Donati, were of noble birth and lineage but were not exceedingly

rich, and they saw the pope as an ally against imperial power. The Whites, or

Cerchi, were not of noble lineage, but had made a vast fortune trading and

wished to become a part of the aristocracy, they wished to remain independent of

all control, papal or imperial. After a particularly violent skirmish the

leaders of both parties were exiled in order to provide peace, however, Pope

Boniface VIII helped the leaders of the Black return. These Blacks seized power

and banned Dante from the city for two years and imposed upon him heavy fines,

he did not pay the fines, and they said he would be killed should he ever return

to Florence.

Dante’s immediate response was a desire to join with the other exiles

and organize, they would retake the city by force. The exiled people were more

concerned with their own interests than retaking Florence, the movement never

even really got underway. There were a few isolated skirmishes, called the Wars

of Mugello, but they were all unsuccessful. Dante was disgusted by the utter

lack of motivation in his companions, and he decided to go his own way.

Dante spent time in Northern Italy and in Verona, he made his way to

Paris around 1307, there he joined the Ghibellines, hoping to unite all of

Europe under the reign of an “enlightened emperor”1. There are no certain

records documenting Dante’s travels so most of the information on this period is

mere speculation. It is thought that while in Northern Italy Dante wrote De

Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning the Common Speech) and the unfinished

Convivio(Banquet) He probably also began The Divine Comedy around 1307.

Dante once again became engulfed in politics around 1310 with the

arrival of Henry VII King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Henry wanted to

bring all of Italy together, Dante supported him in this endeavor. He wrote to

many Italian princes and political leaders asking them to welcome Henry, Dante

thought this would end the continuing feuds between Italy’s cities. Some

Florentines started a movement against Henry that spread throughout Italy, when

Henry finally acted his movement failed miserably. Henry died in 1313 and this

obviously brought Dante’s hopes to an end. During this time Dante probably

wrote De Monarchia(On Monarchy)

Final Years:

Dante was invited to return to Florence in 1316, however, he was to be

treated as a pardoned criminal. Dante refused these terms and continued to live

in exile. He spent his last days in Ravenna, dying there on September 13 or 14

in 1321. In the last years of his life Dante wrote Quaestion de Acqua et

Terra(Question of Water and of Earth) and two Latin eclogues.

Florence During Dante’s Time:

Dante lived in Florence around the year 1300. The population then was

around 90,000 people in the city itself and 80,000 in the surrounding rural

areas. The city was run by the following public officials: The mayor, the

public defender, the chief of justice, the captain of the guard, the tax

assessor, the official in charge of regulations concerning women’s ornaments,

the administrator of the trade regulations, the official in charge of the wool

guild, the ecclesiastical officials, and the grand inquisitor. Florence was a

bustling city and the center of Italian culture during this time period and on

through the Renaissance.

His Works:

His first important work was La vita nuova(The New Life), written not

that long after Beatrice’s death. It chronicled, in the form of sonnets woven

together with prose, his love for her, his premonition of her death, her actual

death and his commitment that he would write a work that would be a worthy

monument for her. While remaining in relative obscurity when compared to The

Divine Comedy, The New Life is considered a great work, it was of a new format,

the finest work of the ?new sweet style?1 of contemporary Florentine vernacular

poetry. It is considered to be one of the greatest works of European verse ever,

Dante portrays his subject using ?lofty idealism?1 and suggests a ?spiritual


De Vulgari Eloquentia(Concerning Common Speech) was written around 1305.

It is basically an argument for the Italian Language, it defends vernacular and

it acts basically a justification for Dante’s writing in vernacular.

Convivio(Banquet) was written between 1304 and 1307 and was intended to

be a series of fifteen books, on all the knowledge of the time. The first book

was to be an introduction, and the other fourteen were to take the form of

commentary on fourteen poems of Dante, sadly however only four books were


De Monarchia(On Monarchy) is a book of Dante’s philosophy, including the

need for a supranational Holy Roman Emperor and the need for complete separation

of church and state.

Quaestio de Acqua et Terra(The Question of Water and of Earth) written

near the end of Dante’s life was a fairly minor work, it basically concerned

whether or not the water at any point on the surface of the planet was higher

than the land. Quite an important topic indeed…

Dante’s crowning achievement, The Divine Comedy takes readers on a

descent into hell. Dante’s strong religious background sets the backdrop for

this terrifying journey. Readers look onward as human forms are condemned, and

as humans are lifted into paradise. This work is often misunderstood, the story

is told that Dante was once walking down the street when he saw that two girls

shrank away from him. One spoke to the other, ?Did you see him? He’s the one

who comes and goes to Hell and brings back news of the damned who live there?

The other one answered, ?Ah, that’s why his complexion is so dark. The smoke

must have blackened him? Many people during his time viewed him as a sorcerer

or a mystic.

This work can be interpreted on many levels, according to one source the

?literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical?1. It’s meaning varies upon the

reader, one person may see a beautiful piece of literature, while another may

see a frightening glimpse into their future. Some may denounce The Divine

Comedy as heresy, while others still may embrace it and welcome it’s lessons

into their lives. It is a story of hellish torment, and eternal paradise, it is

a love story, it is the story of man who becomes lost in the forest of life and

finds his way by means of strong guiding forces(the poet Virgil, Beatrice, The

Deity). It is the story of coming once again into life and embracing it for

what is, a journey through darkness, and an emergence into light, be that fiery

red, or divine white.


1. Infopedia 2.0 Copyright 1996 Softkey Multimedia, Inc.

2. Dante Chronology Copyright 1995 ILT

3. Dante, His Life, His Times, His Works Copyright 1968

Arnoldo Mondadori-Milano Translated From Italian by Giuseppini T.

Salvadori and Bernice L. Lewis

4. Volume XI The Chronicle by Giovanni Villani


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