Dante Alighieri, one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages, was born in Florence, Italy, supposedly around May 29, 1265, to a middle-class Florentine family. A year later, on Easter Sunday, he was baptized, later describing this as his first step toward salvation. At an early age, he began to write poetry and became fascinated with lyrics. In 1274, during his adolescence, Dante fell in love with a beautiful girl named Beatrice Portinari. This love of his, though, was in truth simply a lust issue, as they had not actually met more than twice. Unfortunately for Dante, his father passed away in 1283, leaving him yearning for fatherly affection which he later displays in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, as he seems to look toward Virgil for parental affection. During the late 1280’s, he served in the military as a cavalryman in the battles of Compagna and Campaldino against the Ghibellines. Shortly after his return in 1290, his beloved Beatrice passed away, leaving him grief-stricken, but still provided much inspiration for his literary works. His first book, Vita Nuova (New Life), was written about her. Sometime before 1294, Dante married Gemma Donati, whom he later had four children with, named Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia.
Dante was active in the political and military life of Florence. He entered the army as a youth and held several important positions in the Florentine government during the 1290’s. During his life, Florence was divided politically between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. The Guelfs supported the church and liked to keep things as they were. The Ghibellines, however, were mostly supporters of the German emperor, and were in power up until the time of Dante’s birth. When this took place, the Guelfs, for whom Dante’s family was associated, took power. Although born into a Guelf family, Dante became more neutral later in life after realizing that the church was corrupt, believing it should only be involved in spiritual affairs. He joined the Physicians and Apothecaries Guild and soon became a fairly important politician. At the turn of the century, Dante rose from city Councilman to Ambassador of Florence. At this time, the Guelfs had split into two factions, the Black and White Guelfs. The Black Guelfs supported Pope Boniface VIII and his quest to seize Florence’s province; the White Guelfs, however, did not support the Pope. Dante tried to show his neutrality for the groups by exiling the leaders of both factions, which included his brother-in-law and his best friend.
Finally in 1302, while Dante was away serving an ambassadorship in the town of Siena, the Black Guelfs and their French allies took over the city. They confiscated Dante’s possessions and sentenced him to banishment from Florence, threatening the death penalty upon him if he returned. Dante first traveled to Verona, spending most of his time in exile writing new pieces of literature. Afterwards, he traveled as far as Paris and Oxford before settling in Ravenna in 1319. It is believed that around 1307 he interrupted his unfinished work, Convivio, a reflection of his love poetry philosophy of the Roman tradition, to begin The Divine Comedy. He also wrote a book called De Vulgari Eloquentia, which explained the origins and types of human language and devices of poetry, in addition to his idea to combine a number of Italian dialects to create a new national language. In 1310, he wrote De Monarchia presenting Dante’s case for a one-ruler world order. In 1321, Dante was sent by the lord of Ravenna as an ambassador to Venice to settle arguments over trade regulations, and upon his return to Ravenna, he fell sick with Malaria and died on September 13, 1321.
Among his works, The Divine Comedy is the most famous and reputable. He began writing it around 1307 and finished it only a short while before his death. In this work, Dante introduced his invention of the terza rima, or three-line stanza, as well as himself as a character.
The Inferno is the first of three parts of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which depicts an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante is the hero, who loses his way in the “dark woods”(representing the error of sin) and journeys to nine regions arranged as a funnel in nine concentric circles representing Hell. He is led by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil (representing human reason), who has come to rescue Dante from the dark forest and lead him through the realms of the afterlife. The first circle they enter is Limbo, which consists of the heathen and unbaptized, who led decent lives. The second through the fifth circles are for the lustful, gluttonous, prodigal, and wrathful. The sixth circle is where heretics are punished. The seventh circle is devoted to the punishment of violence. The eighth is devoted to those guilty of fraud and the ninth for those who betrayed others. In the last section, Satan remains imprisoned in a frozen lake.
The journey is difficult and full of insight, disappointment, and questions, but they are ultimately triumphant. The end of their journey leads Dante and Virgil to the bottom of Hell. Lucifer is seen frozen in Hell and they are drawn towards Heaven. They emerge to the surface, rising above the ugliness of sin and journey towards their goal as they catch sight of the stars shining in the heavens. Their journey begins on Good Friday 1300 and they emerge from Hell on the day of Resurrection, Easter Sunday, on the underside of the world, in the hemisphere of water at the foot of Mount Purgatory. He is later led further by his beloved Beatrice, whom he has glorified as an angel and a symbol of divine love by his use of her in the book.
Dante expresses his personal experience using images to interpret his view on the nature of human existence. He writes in the first person so the reader can identify and deeply understand the truths he wished to share about the meaning of life and man’s relationship with the Creator. Dante is remembered as a great thinker and one of the greatest writers of all time. Many consider his epic poem The Divine Comedy, consisting of Inferno, Paradiso, and Purgatorio, among the finest works of all literature. Dante experienced just about everything a man could experience in one lifetime. He lived a fairly long life, was successful both artistically and politically, and who loved. He was also a man defeated, who suffered the humiliation of exile and the threat of death on his head. He became very acquainted with the cruelty and evil that people could dish out. Dante felt he was a victim of a grave injustice. His works reflect his experiences and attempts to answer some of life’s difficult questions.
Dante’s Divine ComedyVolume 1: Inferno