In September 1321, a man in his late 50s died of malaria in Ravenna. 700 years later his death is still remembered, and even commemorated. That man was Dante Alighieri – Italy’s most famous and celebrated poet and arguably one of the greatest writers to have ever lived.
A brief biography of Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence. His exact date of birth is unknown, but clues in The Divine Comedy, such as the reference to being “midway upon the journey of our life” and an allusion to the astrological sign of Gemini suggest that he was most likely born in May or June in 1265.
At the age of 12 he was already promised in marriage to a young girl named Gemma, who belonged to the powerful Donati family. This was in spite of the fact that Dante had already – at the tender age of 9 – fallen in love with a girl named Beatrice. Dante later married Gemma and the couple had at least four children together, but he never forgot Beatrice. It was Beatrice who became Dante’s muse, taking a powerful symbolic role in The Divine Comedy.
During his political career Dante was caught up in the turmoil of the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict – a rival between two factions who supported the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively. The Guelphs soon divided into separate factions as a result of ideological differences. As a “White Guelph” (supporting the Pope but in favour of more freedom from Rome) Dante found himself on the losing side.
Dante was exiled from Florence, and told that he risked being burned at the stake if he ever returned. (A sentence that remained in place until it was rescinded by the Florence city council in 2008!). He spent the remainder of his life travelling, studying and writing various literary works before settling in Ravenna.
Dante died of malaria at the age of around 56, and was buried in Ravenna. Florence later regretted exiling its greatest writer and built a tomb for him in Santa Croce, which remains empty.
The Divine Comedy: a literary masterpiece
This long narrative poem, written over a period of about 12 years while Dante was in exile. The Divine Comedy is composed of three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). It’s a towering achievement with an epic scope, as it narrates the poet’s epic journey through Hell and beyond. During the journey the poet is accompanied by guides such as the Roman poet Virgil, as well as Dante’s muse, Beatrice.
In 14,233 lines of verse Dante covers theology, philosophy, politics, science and much more. Although the topics can be heavy-going at times, the beauty of Dante’s language, combined with his imaginative genius and remarkably complex characterisation, make The Divine Comedy a rich, enjoyable read.
The Divine Comedy is not Dante’s only work, but it is by far his most famous. 700 years later, it’s still seen as one of the greatest literary masterpieces of all time. It was so influential that it helped to establish Tuscan as the standard Italian language. Dante is considered the “father” of the Italian language. The Divine Comedy is an important part of the curriculum in Italian schools, just like Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. In the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”
Discovering Dante: where to begin
If you’re new to Dante, you can start by learning more about his life and works online. We understand that complete beginners can feel daunted by the prospect of full immersion in a dense, 300 page poem. Therefore, start with this video from TED: Why should you read Dante’s Divine Comedy?
The World of Dante is an excellent resource, featuring the original text of The Divine Comedy with a parallel translation, as well as commentary and extra resources. There are also plenty of study guides available. Also, you could listen to podcasts (Dante’s History and Dante’s Divine Comedy – Dante 2021), all of this will help you get to grips with the work.
And of course, what better way to celebrate Dante on the seventh centenary of his death than with a trip to Italy? Roads to Rome Private Tours can help you plan an itinerary. For example we could tour from the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence (where Dante was baptised) to his tomb in the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna.
Read more: Follow Dante’s Footsteps Through Italy (Smithsonian Magazine)
Written by Alexandra Turney