Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri was born and lived at a time of great tumult and upheaval in his homeland. As a result of a life lived in social conflict, unrest, and a cruel exile, Dante poured his frustrations, anger, and feelings of loss into what many consider the greatest work of literature in world history. His Divina Commedia continues to have such far-reaching influence on Western culture and religion that he is regarded as the “Father of the Italian Language.” Divided into three parts, consisting of thirty-three cantos each, the Commedia deals with the struggle of humanity to achieve eternal peace, an existence that Dante in life was never to find for himself. The story details a journey made by the speaker of the poem, into Hell (Book one, Inferno), Purgatory (Book two, Purgatorio), and finally Paradise (Book three, Paradisio).
Dante was born in Florence around the year 1265 to a prominent family. Dante’s father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a member of the White Guelph political party, which indicates that the family was of somewhat high standing. Dante’s mother died when he was a young boy, and within two years he was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati. However, Dante had already fallen in love with Beatrice Portinari. She would later loom large in Dante’s literary work as the Courtly Love interest in the Commedia. Indeed, along with fellow Italian poet Petrarch, Dante is largely responsible for the development of interest in the rituals and behaviors associated with the medieval idea of Courtly Love. Despite his devotion to Beatrice (whom he barely knew personally), he remained married to Gemma and the couple had five children together.
Little is known about Dante’s education, but his extensive knowledge of the classics of Western Literature and contemporary politics in the Commedia suggests that he received a respectable level of formal education, most likely at home. He expressed an early interest in writing verse, and wrote a number of sonnets, poems, and a philosophical treatise.
The warring political factions of Florence continued to swirl around Dante, his family, and community. The White Guelphs were in opposition to the Black Guelphs, and Dante served on the front fighting on behalf of the Whites. Condemned to perpetual exile by the Pope, Dante was not allowed to return to Florence unless he paid a fine, which he refused to do, partly because all of his assets had been seized by the Blacks. He continued to support the Whites from afar, but Dante became embittered with the situation in his country and in his own life. It was at this point that he began writing what would become the Commedia. Much can be learned in the pages of the Commedia about Dante’s political troubles, his poignant longing to return to Florence, his hatred towards his enemies and his love of Beatrice. He never returned to Florence, and died in Ravenna, Italy shortly after completing Paradisio.