A 13th and 14th century poet and philosopher, Dante Alighieri is, of course, known for his famous poem The Divine Comedy. His literary achievements go further than that, though, for before his time, poetry in Italy was written in Latin. His writings were in the vernacular Italian, making them accessible to more than just the most educated readers, a precedent followed by later Italian writers such as Petrarch. He helped establish the literature of Italy, and he was an influence on many writers from other countries, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton.
Most of what we know of Dante’s life, we have learned from his own works. His birth date is estimated from the words “Midway upon the journey of our life,” in his Inferno, which is understood to be about 35 years of age.
Although he was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati at the age of 12 and married her, he was famously in love with Beatrice Portinari, whom he met at the age of 9.
Dante’s life seems to be centered mostly around strife, for his family in Florence was involved in a war between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs for most of the early part of his life, the Guelphs backing the pope while the Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor. As a young man, he fought with the cavalry for the Guelphs, who were ultimately victorious, a victory that brought about the reformation of the Florentine constitution. However, after victory, the Guelphs split along family and ideological lines between the White Guelphs, which Dante’s family was, and the Black Guelphs. When Dante went as a delegate from the Florence to the pope, the pope urged him to stay in Rome a while longer. While he was there, the Black Guelphs took power and accused Dante of corruption. Dante refused to pay the fine he was assessed, saying he was not guilty, and in any case, they had taken his assets so he could not pay. Thus, he was sentenced to perpetual exile. This famous exile from Florence lasted the rest of his life. Most of his literary work was completed during this exile.
Dante refused several opportunities to return to Florence because of the conditions put upon them, and he died, possibly from malaria, while returning to Ravenna from a diplomatic mission to Venice, never having lived in Florence again.
Most popular works: The Divine Comedy, The Vita Nuova
Other works: Di vulgari eloquentia, Convivio, Eclogues