Dante Alieghieri

1265 - 1321

Durante degli Alighieri (May/June c.1265 – September 14, 1321), commonly known as Dante, was a major Italian poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, originally called Commedia and later called Divina by Boccaccio, is considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.

In Italy he is known as "the Supreme Poet" (il Sommo Poeta) or just il Poeta. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are also known as "the three fountains" or "the three crowns". Dante is also called the "Father of the Italian language".
The exact date of Dante's birth is not known, although it is generally believed to be around 1265. This can be deduced from autobiographic allusions in La Divina Commedia, "the Inferno" (Halfway through the journey we are living, implying that Dante was around 35 years old, as the average lifespan according to the Bible (Psalms 89:10, Vulgate) is 70 years; and as the imaginary travel took place in 1300, Dante must have been born around 1265). Some verses of the Paradiso section of the Divine Comedy also provide a possible clue that he was born under the sign of Gemini—"As I revolved with the eternal twins, I saw revealed from hills to river outlets, the threshing-floor that makes us so ferocious" (XXII 151-154), but these cannot be considered definitive statements by Dante about his birth. However, in 1265 the Sun was in Gemini approximately during the period 11 May to 11 June. His birth date is listed as "probably in the end of May" by Robert Hollander in "Dante" in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, volume 4. In summary, most students of Dante's life believe that he was born between about the middle of May and about the middle of June 1265, but there is little likelihood a definite date will ever be known.
A portrait of Dante, from a fresco in Palazzo dei Giudici, Florence

Dante claimed that his family descended from the ancient Romans (Inferno, XV, 76), but the earliest relative he could mention by name was Cacciaguida degli Elisei (Paradiso, XV, 135), of no earlier than about 1100. Dante's father, Alighiero di Bellincione, was a White Guelph who suffered no reprisals after the Ghibellines won the Battle of Montaperti in the mid 13th century. This suggests that Alighiero or his family enjoyed some protective prestige and status, although some suggest that the politically inactive Alighiero was of such low standing that he was not considered worth exiling.

Dante's family had loyalties to the Guelphs, a political alliance that supported the Papacy and which was involved in complex opposition to the Ghibellines, who were backed by the Holy Roman Emperor. The poet's mother was Bella degli Abati. She died when Dante was not yet ten years old, and Alighiero soon married again, to Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi. It is uncertain whether he really married her, as widowers had social limitations in these matters, but this woman definitely bore two children, Dante's half-brother Francesco and half-sister Tana (Gaetana). When Dante was 12, he was promised in marriage to Gemma di Manetto Donati, daughter of Manetto Donati, member of the powerful Donati family. Contracting marriages at this early age was quite common and involved a formal ceremony, including contracts signed before a notary. Famously, Dante had by this time fallen in love with another, Beatrice Portinari (known also as Bice), whom he first met when he was nine years old. Years after his marriage to Gemma, he claims to have met Beatrice again; although he wrote several sonnets to Beatrice, he never mentioned his wife Gemma in any of his poems. (Dante scholar Dorothy L. Sayers, following the lead of Giovanni Boccaccio, asserts that Dante did not actually marry Gemma until the mid-1290s, after Beatrice's death.)
Dante on the Italian €2.00 coin based on a portrait by Raphael
Dante fought with the Guelph cavalry at the Battle of Campaldino (June 11, 1289). This victory brought forth a reformation of the Florentine constitution. To take any part in public life, one had to be enrolled in one of the city's many commercial or artisan guilds, so Dante entered the guild of physicians and apothecaries. In the following years, his name is occasionally found recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic. A substantial portion of minutes from such meetings from 1298-1300 were lost during the Second World War, however, and consequently the true extent of Dante's participation in the city's councils is somewhat uncertain.
Dante had several children with Gemma. As often happens with significant figures, many people subsequently claimed to be Dante's offspring; however, it is likely that Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni and Antonia were truly his children. Antonia later became a nun with the name of Sister Beatrice.

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