1902 Encyclopedia > Dante

Dante Alighieri
Italian poet
(1265-1321)




DANTE. Dante (or Durante) Alighieri (1265-1321) was born at Florence about the middle of May 1265. He was descended from an ancient family, but not one of the highest rank. His biographers have attempted on very slight grounds to deduce his origin form the Frangipani, one of the oldest senatorial families of Rome. We can affirm with greater certainly that he was connected with the Elisei who took part in the building of Florence under Charles the Great. Dante himself does not, with the exception of a few obscure and scattered allusions, carry his ancestry beyond the warrior Cacciaguida, whom he met in the sphere of Mars (Par. xv. 87, foll.) Cacciaguida there tells his descendent that he was born in the year 1106, that he married an Aldighieri from the valley of the Po, that he had two brothers, Moronte and Eliseo, and that he accompanied the Emperor Conrad III, upon his crusade into the Holy Land, where he died among the infidels. From Eliseo was descended the branch of the Elisei; from Aldighiero, son of Cacciaguida, the branch of the Alighieri, Bellincione, son of Aldighiero, was the grandfather of Dante. His father was a second Aldighiero, a lawyer of some reputation. By his first wife, Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi, this Aldigheiro had a son Francesco; by his second, Donna Bella, whose family of Dante held a most respectable position among the citizens of his beloved city; but had it been reckoned in the very first rank they could not have remained in Florence after the defeat of the Guelfs at Montaperti in 1260. It is clear, however, that Dante’s mother at least did so remain, for Dante was born in Florence in 1265. The heads of the Guelf party did not return till 1267.

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Dante Alighieri


Dante was born under the sign of the twins, "the glorious stars pregnant with virtue, to whom he owes his genius such as it is." Astrologers considered this constellation as favorable to literature and science, and Brunetto Latini, his instruction, tells him in the Inferno (xv. 25, foll) that, if he follows its guidance, he cannot fail to reach the harbour of fame. Boccaccio relates that before his birth his mother dreamed that she lay under a very lofty laurel, growing in a green meadow, by a very clear fountain, when she felt the pangs of childbirths,-- that her child, feeding on the berries which fell from the laurel, and on the waters of the fountain, in a very short time became a shepherd, and attempted to reach the leaves of the laurel, the fruit of which has nurtured him, -- that, trying to obtain them he fell, and rose up, no longer a man, but in the guise of a peacock. We know little of Dante’s boyhood except that he was a hard student and a pupil of Brunetto Latini. Boccaccio tells us that he became very familiar with Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Statius, and all other famous poets; and that, "taken by the sweetness of knowing the truth of the things concealed in heaven, and finding no other pleasure dearer to him on life, he left all other worldly care and gave himself to this alone, and, that no part of philosophy might remain unseen by him, he plunged with acute intellect into the deepest recesses of theology, and so far succeeded in his design that, carting nothing for heat or cold, or watching sot fastings, or any other bodily discomforts, by assiduous study he came to know of the divine essence and of the other separate intelligences all that the human intellect can comprehend." Leonardo Bruni says that "by study of philosophy, of theology, astrology, arithmetic, and geometry, by reading of history, by the turning over many curious books, watching and sweating in his studies, he acquired the science which he was to adorn and explain in his verses." Of hi teacher Brunetto Latini, of whom he speaks with the most loving gratitude and affection, but whose gross vices he does not hesitate to brand with infamy, Giovanni Villani has left us a graphic picture: – "He was a great philosopher, and a consummate master of rhetoric, not only in knowing how to speak well, but how to write well. He it was who explained the rhetoric of Tully and made the good and useful book called Tesoro, and the Tesoretto and the Chiave del Tesoro, and other works in philosophy and of vices and virtues, and he was secretary of our commune. He was a worldly man; but we have made mention of his because he both began and directed the growth of the Florentines, both in making them ready in speaking well and in knowing how to guide and direct our republic according to the rules of politics." Under this guidance Dante became master of all the science of his age at a time when it was not impossible to know all that could be known. He was a skilful draughtsman, and tells us that on the anniversary of the death of Beatrice he drew an angel on a tablet. He was an intimate friend of Giotto, who has immortalized his youthful lineaments in the chapel of the Bargello, and who is recorded to have drawn from his friend’s inspiration the allegories of Virtue and Vice which fringe the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua. Nor was he less sensible to the delights of music. Milton had not a keener ear for the loud uplifted angel trumpets and the immortal harps of golden wires of the cherubim and seraphim; and our English poet was proud to compare his own friendship with Henry Lawes with that between Dante and Casella, "met in the milder shades of purgatory." Most dear to him of all were the companions Cino di Pistoria, Lapo Gianni, Guido Cavalcanti, and others, similarity gifted and dowered with like tastes, who lived in the lively streets of the city of the flowers, and felt with him the first warm flush of the coming renaissance. He has written no sweeter or more melodious lines than those in which he expresses the wish that he, with Guido and Lapo, might be wafted by enchantment over the sea wheresoever they might list, shielded from fortune and evil times, and living in such contentment that they should bring Monna Vanna and Monna Bice and that other lady into their barque, where they should for ever discourse of love and be for ever happy. It is a wonderful thing (says Leonardo Bruni) that, though he studied without intermission, it would not have appeared to any one that he studied, from his joyous mien and youthful conversation. Like Milton he was trained in the strictest academical education which the age afforded; but Dante lived under a warmer sun and brighter skies, and found in the rich variety and gaiety of his early like a defence against the withering misfortunes of his later years. Milton felt too early the chill breath of Puritanism, and the serious musing on the experience of life, which saddened the verse of both poets, deepened in his case into grave and desponding melancholy.

We must now consider the political circumstances in which lay the activity of Dante’s manhood. From 1115, the year of the death of Matilda countess of Tuscany, to 1215, Florence enjoyed a nearly uninterrupted peace. Attached to the Guelf party it remained undivided against itself. But in 1215 a private feud between the families of Buondelmonte and Uberti introduced into the city the horrors of civil war. Villani (lib. V. cap. 38) relates how Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti, a noble youth of Florence, being engaged to marry a lady of the house of Amidei, allied himself instead to a Donati, and how Boundelmonte was attacked and killed by the Amidei and Uberti at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, close by the pilaster which bears the image of Mars. "The death of Messer Buondelmonte was the occasion and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence." Of the seventy-two families then in Florence thirty-nine became Gurlf under the leadership of the Buondelmonte, and the rest Ghibeline under the Uberti. The strife of parties was for a while allayed by the was against Pisa in 1222. and the constant struggles against Siena; but in 1248 Frederick II, sent into the city his natural sin Frederick, prince of Antioch, with 1600 German knights. The Guelfs were driven away from the town, and took refuge, part in Montevarchi, part in Capraia. The Ghibellines, master of Florence, behaved with great severity, and destroyed the towers and palaces of the Guelf nobles. At last the people became impatient. They rose in rebellion, deposed the podestà, elected in his place a captain of the people, established a more democratic constitution, and, encouraged by the death of Frederick in December 1250, recalled the exiled Guelfs. Manfred, the bastard son of Frederic, pursued the policy of his father. He stimulated the Ghibelline Uberti to rebel against their position of subjection. A rising of the vanquished party was put down by the people, in July 1258 the Ghibellines were expelled from the town, and the towers of the Uberti razed to the ground. The exiles betook themselves to the friendly city of Siena. Manfred sent them assistance. The Florentines, after vainly demanding their surrender, dispatched an army against them. On September 4, 1260, was fought the great battle of Montaperti, which dyed the Arbia red, and in which the Guelfs were entirely defeated. The hand which held the banner of the republic was sundered by the sword of a traitor. For the first time in the history of Florence the Caroccio was taken. Florence lay at the mercy of her enemies. A parliament was held at Empoli, in which the deputies of Siena, Pisa, Arezzo, and other Tuscan towns consulted on the best means of securing their new war power. They voted that the accursed Guelf city should be blotted out. But Farinata of the Uberti stood up in their midst, bold and defiant as when he stood erect among the sepulchers of hell, and said that if from the whole number of the Florentines, he alone should remain, he would not suffer, whilst he could wield a sword, that his country should be destroyed, and that, if it were necessary to die a thousand times for her, a thousand times would he be ready to encounter death. Help came to the Guelfs from an unexpected quarter. Clement IV., elected Pope in 1265, offered the crown of Apulia and Sicily to Charles of Anjou. The French prince, passing rapidly through Lombardy, Romagna, and the Marches, reached Rome by way of Spoleto, was crowned on January 6, 1266, and on February 23 defeated and killed Manfred at Benevento. In such a storm of conflict did Dante first see the light. In 1267 the Guelfs were recalled, but instead of settling down in peace with their opponents they summoned Charles of Anjou to vengeance and the Ghibellines were driven out. The meteor passage of Conradin gave hope to the imperil partly, which was quenched when the head of the fair-haired boy fell on the scaffold at Naples. Pope after Pope tried in vain to make peace. Gregory X. placed the rebellious city under the interdict; Nicolas III, in 1280 patched up a hollow truce. In 1282 the constitution of Florence received the final from which it retained till the collapse of freedom. From the three arti maggiori were chosen six priors, in whose hands was placed the government of the republic. They remained in office for two months, and during that time lived and shared a common table in the Public Palace. We shall see what influence this office had upon the fate of Dante. The success of the Sicilian Vespers, the vacancy of the Holy See, the death of Charles of Anjou, roused again the courage of the Ghibellines. They took possession of Arezzo, and threatened to drive out the Gurlfs from Tuscany. The historian Ammirato has left us as lively account of the skirmished against Arezzo in the year 1288, prelude to the great battle of Campaldino in the following summer. Then it was that Dante saw "horsemen moving camp and commencing the assault, and holding muster, and the march of foragers, the chock of tournaments, and race of jousts, now with trumpets and now with bells, with drums and castle signals, with native things and foreign" (Inf. Xxii. 1, foll.) On June 11, 1289, at Campaldino near Poppi, in the Cassentino, the Ghibellines were utterly defeated. They never again recovered their hold on Florence, but the violence of faction survived under other names. Dante fought with distinction at Campaldino, was present shortly afterwards at the battle of Caprona (Inf. Xxi. 95, foll.), and returned in September 1289 to his studies and his love. His peace was of short duration. On June 9, 1290, died Beatrice, whose mortal love and guided him for thirteen years, and whose immortal spirit purified his later life, and revealed to him the mysteries of Paradise.

Dante had first met Beatrice Portinari at the house of her gather Folco on May-day 1274. In his own words, "already nine times after my birth the heaven of light had returned as it were to the same point, when there appeared to my eyes the glorious lady of my mind, who was by many called Beatrice who knew not what to call her. She had already been so long in this life that already in its time the starry heaven had moved towards the east the twelfth part of a degree, so that she appeared to me about the beginning of her ninth year. Her dress on that day was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her tender age. At that moment I saw most truly that the spirit of life which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the4 heart began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words. ‘Ecce dues fortior me qui veniens dominabitur mihi.’" In the Vita Nuova is written the story of his passion from its commencement to within a year after the lady’s death. He saw Beatrice only once or twice, and she probably knew little of him. She married Simone de’ Bardi. But the worship of her lover was stronger for the remoteness of its object. The last chapter of the Vita Nuova relates how, after the lapse of a year," it was given me to behold a wonderful vision, wherein I saw things which determined me that I would say nothing further of this blessed one until such time as I could discourse more worthily concerning her. And to this end I labour all I can, as she is truth knoweth. Therefore if it be His pleasure through whom is the life of all things that my life continue with me a few years, it is my hope that I shall yet write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman. After the which may it seem good unto Him who is the master of grace that my spirit should go hence to behold the glory of its lady, to wit, of that blessed Beatrice who now gloriously gazes on the countenance of Hi, qui est per omnia benedictus." In the Convito he resumes the story of his life. "When I had lost the first delight of my soul (that is, Beatrice) I remained so pierced with sadness that no comforts availed me anthing, yet after some time my mind, desirous of health, sought to retuen to the method by which other disconsolate ones had found consolation, and I set myself to read that little-known book of Boetius in which he consoled himself when a prisoner and an exile. And hearing that Tully had written another work in which treating of friendship, he had given words of consolation to Laelius, I set myself to read that also." He so far recovered from the shock of his loss that in 1292 he married Gemma, daughter of Manetto Donati, a connection of the celebrated Corso Doanti, afterwards Dante’s bitter fee. It is possible that she is the lady mentioned in the Vita Nuova as sitting full of pity at her window and comforting Dante for his sorrow. By this wife he had seven children, and although he never mentions her in the Divina Gommedia, and although she did not accompany him into exile, there is no reason to suppose that she was other than a good wife, or that the union was otherwise than happy. Certain it is that he spears the memory of Corso in his great poem, and speaks kindly of his kinsmen Piccarda and Forese.





Dante now began to take an active part I politics. He was inscribed in the arte of the Medici and Speziali, which made him eligible as one of the six priori to whom the government of the city was intrusted in 1282. Documents still existing in the archives of Florence show that he took part in the deliberations of the several councils of the city in 1295, 1296, 1300, and 1301. Filelfo say that he served on fourteen embassies, a statement not only unsupported by evidence, but impossible in itself. Filelfo does not mention the only embassy in which we know for certain that Dante was engaged, that to the twon of San Gemignano in 1299. From June 15 to August 15, 1300, he held the office of prior, which was the source of all the miseries of his life. The spirit of faction had again broken out in Florence. The two rival families were the Cerchi and the Donati, -- the first of great wealth but recent origin, the last of ancient ancestry but poor. A quarrel had arisen in Pistoia between the two branches of the Cancellieri, -- the Bianchi and Neri, the Whites and the Blacks. The quarrel spread to Florence, the Donati took the side of the Blacks, the Cerchi of the Whites. Pope Boniface was asked to mediate, and sent Cardinal Matteo d’Acquasparta to maintain peace. He arrived just as Dante entered upon his office as prior. The cardinal effected nothing, but Dante and his colleagues banished the heads of the rival parties in different directions to a distance from the capital. The Blacks were sent to Citta della Pieve in the Tuscan mountains; the Whites, among whom was Dante’s dearest friend Guido Cavalcanti, to Serrezzano in the unhealthy Maremma. After the expiration of Dante’s office both parties returned, Guido Cavalcanti so ill with fever that he shortly afterwards died. The Blacks sought for vengeance. The journey of Charles of Valois to Rome gave them an opportunity. At a meeting held in the church of the Holy Trinity the Whites were denounced as Ghibellines, enemies of France and of the pope, and the French prince was invited to then town as peacemaker, to defend the Gurlfs against their machinations. The priori sent art the end of September four ambassadors to the Pope, one of whom was Dante. He never again saw the towers of his native city. Charles of Valois marched from Pavia and took up his abode in the Oltr’ Arno. Corso Donati, who had been banished a second time, returned in force and summoned the Blacks to arms. The prisons were broken open, the podestà driven from the town, the Cerchi confined within their houses, a third of the city was destroyed with fire and sword. By the help of Charles the Blacks were victorious. They appointed Cante de’Gabrielli of Gubbio as podestà, a man devoted to their interest. More than 600 Whites ere condemned to exile and cast beggars upon the world. On January 27, 1302, Dante with three others was condemned to pay a fine of 5000 lire of small florins. If the money was nit paid within three days their property was to be destroyed and laid waste; if they did pay the fine they were to be exiled for two years from Tuscany; in any case they were never again to hold office in the republic. On March 10 Dante and fourteen others were condemned to be burned alive if they should come into the power of the republic. Similar sentences were passed in September 1311 and October 1315. The sentence was not formally reversed till 1494, under the government of the Medici.

Dante received the news of the banishment in Siena. The exiles met first at Gargonza, a castle between Siena and Arezzo, and then at Arezzo itself. They joined themselves to the Ghibellines, to which party the podestà Uguccione della Faggiuola belonged. The Ghibellines, however, were derived amongst themselves, and the Green Ghibellines were not disposed to favour the cause of the White Gurlfs. They found a more sympathetic defender in Scarpetta degli Ordeladdi at Forli. From this place Dante probably went to Bartolommeo della Scala, lord of Verona, where the country of the great Lombard gave him his first refuge and his first hospitable reception. Can Grande, to whom he afterwards dedicated the Paradiso, was then a boy. Bartolommeo died in 1304, and it is possible that Dante may have remained in Verona till his death. In September 1303 the fleur-de-lis had entered Anagni, and Christ had a second time been buffeted in the person of his vicar. Boniface VIII, did not survive the insult long, but died in the following month. He as succeeded by Benedict XI, who did his best to give peace to his distracted country. Immediately after his accession he sent the Cardinal da Prato to Florence, who arrived there in March 1304. Then people received him with enthusiasm; ambassadors came to him from the Whites; and he did his best to reconcile the two parties. But the Blacks resisted all his efforts. He shook the dust from off his feet, and departed, leaving the city under an interdict. Foiled by the calumnies and machinations of the one party, the cardinal gave his countenance to the other. It happened that Corso Donati and the heads of the Black party were absent at Pistoia. Da Prato advised the Whites to attack Florence, deprived of its heads and impaired by fire. An army was collected of 16,000 foot and 9000 horse. Communications were opened with Ghibellines of Bologna and Romagna. But the forces of the exiles, badly led, reached the gates of the city only to find themselves unsupported from within. They were driven to retreat, all hope of return became impossible, and Dante felt for the first time the full bitterness of exile. It was after the failure of this ill-conceived attempt that Dante’s wanderings really began. Filled with contempt at the baseness and incapacity of his fellow-sufferers, he wished that, disdaining the support of their companionship, he had stood alone, and made a party by himself. This, indeed we must consider Dante to have done, if we would understand the real nature of his Ghibellinism. Dante had been born and bred a Guelf, and it was only under the pressure of inevitable necessity that he and his friends allied themselves with the other side. If we rise beyond the limits of mere local quarrels, we dins in Italian history that the Guelf party was generally speaking favourable to liberty. The municipal privileges of the great Italian cities rose under the protection of the Popes, while the emperors only crossed the Alps to crush their ancient independence, and depress them beneath the yoke of some feudal representative. The horse of Barbarossa trampled upon the ashes of Milan, whereas the straw-built fortress of the Lombard league bore the name of Alexander. Had it not breathed the air of freedom, the life of Florence could not have survived the period of its infancy, shifted as it, afterwards was by the preponderance of the Medici. Dante could not have been indifferent or ungrateful to the cause which had given to his beloved Italy all that made it valuable to the world. But he saw that the conditions of the time were altered, and that other dangers menaced the welfare of his country. There was no fear now that Fiorence, Siena, Pida, Arezzo should be razed to the ground in order that the castle of the lord might overlook the humble cottages of his contended subjects; but there was danger lest Italy should be torn in sunder by its own jealousies and passions, and lest the fair domain bounded by the sea and the Alps should never properly assert the force of its individuality, and should present a contemptible contrast to a united France and a confederated Germany. Sick with petty quarrels and dissensions Dante strained his eyes towards the hills for the appearance of a deliverer, who should hush the jar of discord, discipline into effectiveness the luxuriant forces of the peninsula, and, united in spiritual harmony with the vicar of Christ, show for the first time to the world an example of a government where the strongest force and the highest wisdom were interpenetrated by all that God had given to the world of piety and justice. In this sense and in no other was Dante a Ghibelline. The vision was never realized – the hope was never fulfilled. Not till our day has Italy become united and the "greyhound of deliverance" has chased from city to city the "wolf" of the papacy. But is it possible to say that the dream did not work its own realization, or to deny that the high ideal of the poet, after inspiring a long succession of minds as lofty as his own, has become after five hundred years embodied in the constitution of a state which acknowledges no stronger bond of union that a common worship of the exile’s indignant and impassioned verse?





It is very difficult to determine with exactness the order and the place of Dante’s wanderings. Many cities and castles in Italy have claimed the honor of giving him shelter, or of being for a time the home of his inspired muse. He certainly spent some time with Count Guido Salvatico in the Casentino near the sources of the Arno, probably in the castle of Porciano, and with Uguccione in the castle of Faggiuola in the mountains of Urbino. After this he is said to have visited the university of Bologna; and in August 1306 we find him at Padua. Cardinal Napoleon Orsini, the legate of the French Pope Clement V., had put Bologna under a ban, dissolved the university, and driven the professors to the northern city. In May or June 1307 the same cardinal collected the Whites at Arezzo and tried to induce the Florentines to recall the, The name of Dante is found attached to a document signed by the Whites in the church of St. Gaudenzio in the Mugello. This enterprise came to nothing. Dante retired to the castle of Moroello Della Spina in the Lunigiana, where the marble ridges of the Apennines descend in precipitous slopes to the Gulf of Spezzia. From this time till the arrival of the emperor Henry VII. In Italy, October 1310, all is uncertain. His old enemy Corso Donati had at last united himself with Uguccione della Faggiuola, the leader of the Ghibellines. Dante thought it possible that this might lead to his return. But in 1308 Corso was declared a traitor, attacked in his house, put to flight, and killed. Dante lost his last hope. He left Tuscany, and went to Can Grande della Scala at Verona. From this place we may believe that he visited the university of Paris, studied in the Rue Fouarre, became acquainted with the Low Countries, and not improbably crossed the Channel and went to Oxford, and saw where the heart of Prince Harry was worshipped upon London Bridge. The election of Henry of Luxembeourg as emperor stirred again his hopes of a deliverer. He left Paris and returned hastily to Italy. At the end of 1310, in a letter to the princes and people of Italy, he proclaimed the coming of the saviour; and Milan he did personally homage of his sovereign. The Florentines made every preparation to resist the emperor Dante wrote from the Casentino a letter dated March 31, 1311, in which he rebuked them for their stubbornness and obstinacy. Henry still lingered in Lombardy at the siege of Cremona, when Dante, on April 16, 1311, in a celebrated epistle, upbraided his delay, argued that the crown of Italy was to be won on the Arno rather than on the Po, and urged the tarrying emperor to hew the rebellious Florerentines like Agag in pieces before the Lord. Henry was a deaf to this exhortation as the Florentines themselves. After reducing Lombardy he passed from Genoa to Pisa, and on June 29, 1312, was crowned in Rome. Then at length the moved towards Tuscany by way of Umbria. Leaving Cortona was Arezzo, he reached Florence on September 19. He did not dare to attack it, but returned in November to Pisa. In the summer of the following year he prepared to invade the kingdom of Naples; but in the neighbourhood of Siena he caught a fever and died at the monastery of Buoconvento, August 24, 1313. The hopes of Dante and his party were buried in his grave.

After the death of the emperor Henry (Bruni tells us) Dante passed the rest of his life in great poverty, sojourning in various places throughout Lombardy, Tuscany, and the Romagna, under the protection of various lords, until at length he retired to Ravenna, where he ended his life. Very little can be added to this meager story. There is reason for supposing that he stayed at Gubbio with Bosone dei Rafelli, and tradition assigns him a cell in the monastery of St. Croce di Fonte Avellana in the same district, situated on the slopes of Catria, one of the highest of the Apennines. After the death of Pope Clement V. he addressed a letter, dated July 14, 1314, to the cardinals in conclave, urging them to elect an Italian Pope. About this time he came to Lucca, then lately conquered by his friend Uguccione, completed the last cantos of the Purgatory , and became enamoured of the courteous Gentucca, whose name had been whispered to him by her countryman on the slopes of the Mountain of Purification. In August 1315, was fought the battle of Monte Catini, a day of humiliation and mourning for the Guelfs. Uguccione made but little use of his victory; and the Florentines marked their vengeance on his adviser by condemning Dante yet once again to death if he ever should come into their power. In the beginning of the following year Ugoccione lost both his cities of Pisa and Lucca. At this time Dante was offered an opportunity of returning to Florence. The conditions given to the exiles were that they should pay a fine and walk in the dress of humiliation to the church of St. John, and there do penance for their offences. Dante refused to tolerate this shame; and the letter is still honour, secure that the means of life will not fail him. And that in any corner of the world he will be able to gaze at the sun and the stars, and meditate on the sweetest truths of philosophy. He preferred to take refuge with his most illustrious protector Can Grande della Scala of Verona, then a young man of twenty-five, rich, liberal, and the favoured head of the Ghibelline party. His name has been immortalized by an eloquent panegyric in the seventeenth canto of the Parasido. Whilst at the court of Verona he maintained in the neighbouring city of Mantua the philosophical thesis De Aqua et Terra, which is included in his minor works. The last two years of his like were spent at Ravenna, under the protection of Guido da Polenta. In his service Dante undertook an embassy to the Venetians. He failed in the object of his mission, and, returning disheartened and broken in spirit through the unhealthy lagoons, caught a fever and died in Ravenna, September 14, 1321. His bones still repose there. His doom of exile has been reversed by the union of Italy, which has made the city of his birth and the various cities of his wanderings component members of a common country. His son Pierro, who wrote a commentary on the Divina Commedia, settled in Verona. His daughter Beatrice lived as a nun in Ravenna. His direct line became extinct in 1509; but the blood still runs in the veins of the Marchesi Serego Alighieri, a noble family of the city of the Scaligers.

Dante may be said to have concentrated in himself the spirit of the middle age. Whatever there was of piety, of philosophy, of poetry, of love of nature, and of love of knowledge in those times is drawn to a focus in his writings. He is the first great name in literature after the night of the dark ages. The Italian language in all its purity and sweetness, in its aptitude for the tenderness if love and the violence of passion, or the clearness of philosophical argument, sprang fully grown and fully armed from his brain. The Vita Nuova is still the best introduction to the study of the Tuscan tongue; the astronomy and science of the Divine Comedy are obscure only inn a translation. Dante’s reputation has passed through many vicissitudes, and much trouble has been spent by critics in comparing him with other poets of established fame. Read and commented upon in the Italian universities in then generation immediately succeeding his death, his name became obscured as the sun of the renaissance roe higher towards its meridian. In the 17th century he was less read than Petrarch, Tasso, or Ariosto; in the 18th he was almost universally neglected. His fame is now fully vindicated. Translations and commentaries issue form every press in Europe and America. Dante societies are formed to investigate the difficulties of his works. He occupies in the lecture-rooms of regenerated Italy a place by the side of those great masters whose humble disciple he avowed himself to be. The Divine Comedy is indeed as true an epic as the Aeneid, and Dante is a real a classic as Virgil. His metre is as pliable and flexible to every mood of emotion, his diction as plaintive and as sonorous. Like him he can immortalize, by a simple expression, a person, a place, or a phase of nature. Dante is even truer in description than Virgil, whether he paints the snow falling in the Alps, or the homeward flight of bird, or the swelling of an angry torrent. But under this gorgeous pageantry of poetry there lies a unity of conception, a power of philosophic grasp, an earnestness of religion which to the Roman poet were entirely unknown. Still more striking is the similarity between Dante and Milton. This may be said to lie rather in the kindred nature of their subjects, and in the parallel development of their minds, than in any mere external resemblance. In both the man was greater than the poet, the souls of both were "like a star and dwelt apart." Both were academically trained in the deepest studies of their age; the labour which made Dante lean made Milton blind. The "Doricke sweetnesses" of the English poet is not absent from the tender pages of the Vita Nuova. The middle life of each was spent in active controversy; each lent his services to the state; each felt the quarrels of his age to be the "business of posterity," and left his warnings to ring in the ears of a later time. The lives of both were failure. "On evil days though fallen and evil tongues," they gathered the concentrated experience of their lives into one immortal work, the quintessence of their hopes, their knowledge, and their sufferings, But Dante is something more than this. Milton’s voice is gown faint to us – we have passed into other modes of expression and of thought. But if we had to select two names in literature who are still exercising their full influence on mankind, and whose teaching is still developing new sides to then coming generations, we should choose the names of Dante and Goethe. Goethe preaches a new gospel to the world, the pagan virtue of self-culture, a sympathy which almost passed into indifference. There is no department of modern literature or though which does not bear upon it the traces of the sage of Weimar. But if we rebel against this teaching, and yearn once more for the ardour of belief, the fervour of self-sacrifice, the scorn of scorn and the hate of hate which is the meed of the coward and the traitor, where shall we find them but in the pages of the Florentine? The religion of the future, if it be founded on faith, will demand that faith be reconciled with all that mind can apprehend of knowledge or the heart experience of emotion. The saint of those days will be trained, not so much on ascetie counsels of Imitation, or in Thoughts which base man’s greatness on the consciousness of his fall, as on the verse of the poet, theologian, and philosopher, who stands with equal right in the conclave of the doctors and on the slopes of Parnassus, and in whom the ardour of study is one with the love of Beatrice, and both are made subservient to lift the soul from the abyss of hell, along the terraces of purgatory , to the sphere of paradise, till it gazes on the ineffable revelation of the existence of God himself, which can only be apprehended by the eye of faith.

It only remains now to give a short account of Dante’s separate works. The Vita Nuova, or Young Life of Dante, contains the history of his love for Beatrice. Like the In Memoriam of our own poet it follows all the varying phrases of a deep and overmastering passion from its commencement to its close. He describes how he met Beatrice as a child, himself a child, how he often sought her glance, how she once greeted hum in the street, how he feigned a false love to hide his true love, how he felt ill and saw in a dream the death and transfiguration of his beloved, how she died, and how his health failed from sorrow, how the tender compassion of another lady nearly won his heart from its first affection, how Beatrice appeared to him in a vision and reclaimed his heart, and how at last he saw a vision which induced him to devote himself to study that he might be more fit to glorify her who gazes on the face of God for ever. This simple story is interspersed with sonnetti, ballate, and canzoni, chiefly written at the time to emphasize some mood of his changing passion. After each of these, in nearly every case, follows an explanation in prose, which is intended to make the thought and argument intelligible to those to whom the language of poetry was not familiar. The book was probably completed in 1307. It was first printed by Sermartelli in Florence, 1576. The latest and best edition is that by Witte, published by Brockhaus, Leipsic, 1876.

The Convito, or Banquet, is the work of Dante’s manhood, as the Vita Nuova is the work of his youth. It consists, in the form in which it has once down to us, of an introduction and three treatises, each forming an elaborate, commentary in a long canzone. It was intended, if completed, to have comprised commentaries on eleven more canzoni, making fourteen in all, and in this shape would have formed a tesoro or hand-book of universal knowledge, such as Brunetto Latini and others have left to us. It is perhaps the least well known of Dante’s Italian works, but crabbed and unattractive as it is in many parts, it is well worth reading, and contains many passages of great beauty and elevation. Indeed a knowledge of it is quite indispensable to the full understanding of the Divina Commedia. The time of its composition is uncertain. Dante mentions princes as living who died in 1309; he does not mention Henry VII. as emperor, who succeeded in 1310. There are some passages which seem to have been inserted at a later date. The canzoni upon which the commentary is written were clearly composed between 1292 and 1300, when he sought in philosophy consolation for the loss of Beatrice. The present text is very defective. The Convito was first printed in Florence by Buonaccorsi in 1490.

Rime di Dante . – Besides the smaller poems contained in the Vita Nuova and Convito there are a considerable number of canzoni, ballet, and sonnetti bearing the poet’s name. Of these many undoubtedly are genuine, others as undoubtedly spurious. Some which have been preserved under the name of Dante belong to Dante de Maiano, a poet of a harsher style; others which bear the name of Aldighiero are referable to Dante’s sons Jacopo or Pietro, or to his grandsons; others may be ascribed to Dante’s contemporaries and predecessors Cino de Pistoia and others. Those which are genuine secure Dante a place among lyrical poets scarcely if all inferior to that of Petrarch. The best edition of the Canzoniere of Dante is that by Fraticelli published by Barbéra at Florence. His collection includes seventy-eight genuine poems, eight doubtful and fifty-four spurious. To these are added an Italian paraphrase of the seven penitential psalms in terza rima, and a similar paraphrase of the Credo, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ave Maria.

The Latin treatise De Monarchia, in three books, contains the creed of Dante’s Ghibellinism. In it he propounds the theory that the supremacy of the emperor is derived from the supremacy of the Roman people over then world, which was given to them direct from God. As the emperor is intended to assure their earthly happiness, so does their spiritual welfare depend upon the Pope, to who, the emperor is to do honour as to the first-born of the Father. The date of its composition is almost universally admitted to be the time of the descent of Henry VII. into Italy, between 1310 and 1313, although attempts have been made to assign it to a much earlier period. The book was first printed by Oporinus at Basel in 1559.

The treatise De Vulgari Eloquio, in two books, also in Latin, is mentioned in the Convito. Its object was first to establish the Italian language as a literary tongue, and to distinguish between the noble speech which might become the property of the whole nation, at once a bond of internal unity and a line of demarcation against external nations; and secondly, to lay down rules for poetical composition in the language so established. The work was probably intended to be in four books, but only two are extant. The first of these deals with the language, the second with the style and with the composition of the canzone. The third was probably intended to continue this subject, and the fourth was destined to the laws of the balata and sonnetto. This work was first published in the Italian translation of Trissino at Vicenza in 1529. The original Latin was not published till 1729 at Verona. The modern editions both of this work and of the De Monarchia by Fraticelli are very admirable. The work was probably left unfinished in consequence of Dante’s death.

Boccaccio mentions in his life of Dante that he wrote two eclogues in Latin in answer to Johannes de Virgilio, who invited him to come from Ravenna to Bologna and compose a great work in the Latin language. The most interesting, passage in the work is that in the first poem, where he expresses his hope that when he has finished the three parts of his great poem his grey hairs may be crowned with laurel on the banks of the Arno. Although the Latin of these poems is superior to that of his prose works, we may fell thankful that Dante composed the great work of his life in his own vernacular. These eclogues have also been printed with notes by Fraticelli.

The Letters of Dante are among the most important material for his biography. Giovanni Villani mentions three as specially remarkable – one to the Government of Florence, in which he complains of underserved exile; another to the Emperor Henry VII, when he lingered too long at the siege of Brescia; and a third to the Italian cardinals to urge them to the election of an Italian Pope after the death of Clement V. The first of these letters has not come down to us, the two last are extant. Besides these we have one addressed to the Cardinal da Prato, one to a Florentine friend refusing the base conditions of return from exile. One to the princes and lords of Italy to prepare them for the coming of Henry of Luxembourg, another top the Florentines reproaching them with the rejection of the emperor, and a long letter to Can Grande della Scala, containing directions for interpreting the Divina Comedia, with especial reference to the Paradiso. Of less imporatance are the letters to the nephews of Count Alessandro da Romena, to the Marquis Moroello Malaspina, to Cino da Pistoia, and to Guido da Polenta. There are many other letter mentioned by early biographers which may yet be lying hidden in Italian archives.

A treatise De Aqua et Terra has come down to us, which Dante tells us was delivered at Mantua in January 1320 (perhaps 1321) as a solution of the question which was being at that time much discusses—whether on any place in the earth’s surface water is higher than the earth. There is no doubt about its genuineness, and it affords us a valuable insight into Dante’s studies and modes of thought.

We have reserved all mention of the Divina Commedia till the last. It would be useless in this place to attempt any account of the contents and scope of this wonderful poem. Those who would learn what it without studying the poem itself could have no better guide than the Shadow of Dante by Maria Rossetti. It will be enough here to say a few words about the date of its composition. The time of the action is strictly confined to the end of March and the beginning of April 1300. It is not improbable that it was commenced shortly after this date. In the Inferno, xix. 79, there is an allusion to the death of Pope Clement V., an event which occurred in 1314. This probably marks the date of the completion of this cantica. The Purgatorio was completed before 1318, as we learn from the Latin poem addressed to Johannes de Virgilio, which speaks of the Inferno and Purgatorio as completed, the Paradiso as yet to be written. The date of the poem is 1318. The last cantos of the Paradiso were probably not finished until just before the poet’s death.

A complete bibliography of Dante literature would require an article to itself. Of the many separate works on this subject perhaps the most complete is that in the fourth volume of the Manuele Dantesco by Professor Ferrazzi Bassano, 1871. The chief secondary authorities for the preceding biography have been the article in Ersch und Gruber's Encyclopädie by Blanc, the Vita di Dante by Fraticelli, Dante Alighieri, seine Zeit, sein Leben, und seine Werks; by Scartazzini, and the excellent treatise of Dr Theodor Paur Ueber die Quellen zur Lebensgeschichte Dante’s, Görlitz, 1862. The edition of Dante, with Italian notes by Sacrtazzini published by Brockhuas at Leipcis, of which only two volumes have as yet appeared, promises to supersede all others. Grave doubts have of late years been thrown on the authenticity of the chronicle of Dino Compagni, which has hitherto been regarded as one of the chief authoriries for the life of Dante. A summing up of the evidence by W. Bernhardi, who concludes against the genuineness of the book, is to be found in Von Sybel’s Historische Zeitchrift, the first number for 1877. A more copious bibliography of Dante literature is subjoined, taken mainly from Scartazzini’s German work.

Editions of Dante’s Works. – Divina Commedia con l’esponsitione di Chr. Landino e di Aless. Velutello, 1 vol. fol., Venet., 1564. The same, Giunta la lezione del Codice Bertoliniano, 4 vols., Udine, 1823-27. The same, l’ottino Commento, 3 vols., Mil. 1829. The same, colla prefazione degli editori della Minerva. 1. 4to, Frr., 1838. The same, col. Comm.. di Fr. Da Buti, 3 vols., Pisa, 1858-62. The same , ricoretta sopra Quattro dei piú autorevoli testi a penna da Carlo Witte, 1 vol. 4to, Berl., 1862. The same, nuovam, riv. Nel testo e dichiarata da Brunone Bianchi, 1 vol., Fir., 1863. The same, col. Comm.. di P. Fraticelli, 1 vol., Fir., 1864. The same it codice Cassinese, 1 col., fol., Monte casino, 1865. The same col. Comm.. di Anonino Fiorentino , ed. P. Fanfani, 1 vol. Bologna, 1866. The sam, col, comm.. di G.A. Scartazzini, Brockhaus, Leopzig. [The volumes containing the Inferno and Purgatorio are published; a fourth volume is to contain the life of Dante and Prolegomena.]

Opere Minori, con le Annotaz, di A.M. Friscioni, 2 vols., Venez,., 1741. The same, con note a illust. Di P, Fraticelli, 3 vols., Fir. 1861-62. Vita Nuova e Conzoniere commentate da G. R. Giuliani, 1 vol., Fir., 1868. Monarchia (Liber i.), Carl Witte, 4to, Halis 1863. The same (Liber ii.), Carl Witte, 4to, Halis, 1867. epistole ed., e ined. Per cura di Aless. Torri, 1 vol., Livorno. 1842. Amori e Rime did ante, 1 vol., Mantova, 1823.

Translations. – The principal translations into English are those of carey (1806), Dayman (1843); F. Pollock, J.A. Caryle (the Inferno only, 1849), and Longfellow, 1867. The best German translation is by King John of Saxony, under the name of Philalethes. Those of Witte, Blanc, and Kannegiesser are also to be recommended.

Of Illustrative Writtings the principal are – the article by L. G. Blanc on Dante Allighieri in Ersch and Gruber’s encyclopaedia; Vocabolario Dantesco, 1 vol., Leipzig, 1852; Versuch einem blos philol. Erkl. Mehrere dunklen Stellen d. Göttl. Kom., 2 vols., Halle, 1861-65; Dante e il suo secolo, 1 vol., Fir., 1861; Giuliani, G.B., Metodo di comm.. la Comm. Di D. A. Fir., 1861; Ozanam, Dante et la philosop[hie catholique au treizième siécle, Par., 1845; Paur, Th., Ueber die Quellen zur Lebens Geshichte Dantes, Görlitz, 1862; Wegele, Fr. X., Dante Al’s Leben und Werks, 1 vol., Jena, 1865, the various writings of Carl Witte, Ueber Dante Breslau, 1831; Quando e da chi sia composto l’ottimo commento a Dante, Lips., 1847; De Bartolo a Saxoferrato Dante Allig. Studioso, Halis, 1861; Dante und die Ital. Fragen, Halle, 1861; Dante-Forschungen, Halle, 1869; Scartazzini, Dantem Allighieri, seine Zeit, sein Leben, und seine Werke, Biel, 1869. To these must be added the Jahrbuch of the Dante Gesellschaft founded in 1865. (O. B.)



The above article was written by Oscar Browning, M.A.; Fellow and Tutor of King's College, Cambridge; University Lecturer in History; Examiner for University of London, 1899; author of Modern England, History of England, Life of George Eliot, and many historical monographs.




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