Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, Gallery of Portraits, 1833


(c.1265 – September 14th, 1321)

WHILE the more northern nations of modern Europe began to cultivate a national and peculiar literature in their vernacular tongues, instead of using Latin as the only vehicle of written thought, it was some time before the popular language of Italy received that attention which might have been expected from the prevalence of free institutions, and the constant intercourse between neighbouring states speaking in similar dialects. At last the example of other countries prevailed, and a native poetry sprung up in Italy. If it be allowable to compare the progress of the national mind to the stages of life, the Italian Muse may be said to have been born in Sicily with Ciullo d'Alcamo in 1190; to have reached childhood in Lombardy with Guido Guinicelli, about 1220 ; and to have attained youth in Tuscany with Guido Cavalcanti, about 1280. But she suddenly started into perfect maturity when Dante appeared, surpassing all his predecessors in lyrical composition, and astounding the world with that mighty monument of Christian poetry, which after five centuries of progressive civilization still stands sublime as one of the most magnificent productions of genius.

Dante Alighieri, the true founder of Italian literature, was born at Florence A.D. 1265, of a family of some note. The name of Dante, by which he is generally known, often mistaken for that of his family, is a mere contraction of his Christian name Durante. Yet an infant when his father died, that heavy loss was lightened by the judicious solicitude with which his mother superintended his education. She entrusted him to the care of Brunetto Latini, a man of great repute as a poet as well as a philosopher ; and he soon made so rapid a progress, both in science and literature, as might justify the most sanguine hopes of his future eminence.

Early as he developed the extraordinary powers of his understanding, he was not less precocious in evincing that susceptibility to deep and tender impressions, to which he afterwards owed his sublimest inspirations. But his passion was of a very mysterious character. It arose in his boyhood, for a girl " still in her infancy," and it never ceased, or lost its intensity, though she died in the flower of her age, and he survived her more than thirty years. Whether he was enamoured of a human being, or of a creature of his own imagination,— one of those phantoms of heavenly beauty and virtue so common to the dreams and reveries of youth,—it is extremely difficult to ascertain. Some of his biographers are of opinion that the lady whom he has celebrated in his works under the name of Bice, or Beatrice, was the daughter of Folco Portinari, a noble Florentine ; while others contend that she is merely a personification of wisdom or moral philosophy. But Dante's own account of his love is given in terms often so enigmatical and apparently contradictory, that it is almost impossible to make them agree perfectly with either of these suppositions.

Whatever its object, his affection seems to have been most chaste and spiritual in its nature. Instead of alienating him from literary pursuits, it increased his thirst after knowledge, and ennobled and purified his feelings. With the aid of this powerful incentive, he soon distinguished himself above the youth of his native city, not only by his acquirements, but also by elegance of manners, and amenity of temper. Thus occupied by his studies, refined and exalted by his love, and cherished by his countrymen, the morning of his life was sunned by the unclouded smiles of fortune, as if to render darker by the contrast the long and gloomy evening which awaited him.

The Ghibelines and the Guelfs

His pilgrimage on earth was cast in one of the most stormy periods recorded in history. The Church and the Empire had been long engaged in a scandalous contest, and had often involved a great part of Europe in their quarrels. Italy was especially distracted by two contending parties, the Guelfs, who adhered to the Pope, and the Ghibelines, who espoused the cause of the Emperor.

In the year 1266, after a long alternation of ruinous reverses and ferocious triumphs, the Guelfs of Florence drove the Ghibelines out of their city, and at last permanently established themselves in power. The family of Dante belonged to the victorious party ; and while he remained in Florence, it would have been dangerous, perhaps impossible, to avoid mingling in these civil broils. Ile accordingly went out against the Ghibelines of Arezzo in 1289 ; and in the following year against those of Pisa. In the former campaign he took part in the battle of Campaldino, in which, after a long and doubtful conflict, the Aretines were completely defeated. On that memorable day he fought valiantly in the front line of the Guelf cavalry, manifesting the same energy in warfare, which he had displayed in his studies and in his love.


But soon after the tumults of the camp had interfered with the calm of his private and meditative life, his adored Beatricel whether an earthly mistress, or an abstraction of his moral and literary studies, was torn from him. This loss, which in his writings he never ceases to lament, reduced him to extreme despondency. Nevertheless in 1291, but a few months after it, he married a lady of the noble family of the Donati, by whom he had a numerous offspring ; a circumstance which would indicate a strange inconsistency of character, had his heart been really preoccupied by another love. This connection with one of the first families of the republic may have smoothed his way to civic eminence; but if Boccaccio, usually a slanderer of the fair sex, be credited, the lady's temper proved unfavourable to domestic comfort.


He now entirely devoted himself to the business of government, and attained such reputation as a statesman, that hardly any transaction of importance took place without his advice. It has even been asserted that he was employed in no less than fourteen embassies to foreign courts. There may be some exaggeration in this statement ; but it is certain that in 1300, at the early age of five and thirty, he was elected one of the Priors, or chief magistrates of the republic ; a mark of popular favour which ended in his total ruin.

Bianchi and Neri

About this time, the Guelfs of Florence split into two new divisions called Bianchi and Neri (whites and blacks), from the denominations of two factions which had originated at Pistoja, in consequence of a dispute between two branches of the Cancellieri family. The Bianchi were chiefly citizens recently risen to importance, who, having received no personal injury from the Ghibelines, were disposed to treat them with moderation ; while the Neri consisted almost entirely- of ancient nobles, who, having formerly been the leaders of the Guelfs, still retained a furious animosity against the Ghibelines. All endeavours to bring them to a reconciliation proved useless : they soon passed from rancour to contumely, and from contumely to open violence.

The city was now in the utmost confusion, and was very near being turned into a, scene of, war and carnage, when the. Priors, hardly knowing what course to pursue, invoked the advice of Dante. His situation was most perplexing and critical. The relations of his wife were at the head of the Neri ; while Guido Cavalcante, his dearest friend on earth, was one of the foremost leaders of the Bianchi.

Interference by Pope Boniface VIII

Nevertheless, silencing, all the claims of private affection for the good of his country, he proposed to banish the principal agitators of both parties. By the adoption of this measure, public tranquillity was for a time restored. But Pope Boniface VIII could not suffer independent citizens to, govern the republic. He sent Charles de Valois to Florence under colour of pacifying the contending, parties, but in truth to re-establish in power the men most blindly devoted to his own interests.

The French prince, after having made the most solemn promises to the Florentine government, that he would, act with rigorous impartiality and adopt, only conciliatory measures, obtained admission into the city, at the beginning of November, 1301. Making no account of the engagements he, had entered into, he now permitted the Neri to perpetrate the most atrocious outrages on the families of their opponents, and to close this scene of horror by pronouncing sentence of exile and confiscation upon six hundred of the most illustrious citizens. Dante was among the victims. He had made himself obnoxious, both to the Neri, whom he had caused to be banished, and to Charles de Valois, whose intrusion in the internal affairs of the commonwealth he had firmly opposed, in council.

Charged with embezzlement

Accordingly, his house was pillaged and razed,, his property confiscated, and his, life saved only by his absence at Rome, whither he had been sent, for the purpose of propitiating the Pope. Highly disgusted at the treacherous conduct of Boniface, who had been deluding him all the while with vain hopes and honeyed words, he suddenly left Rome, and, hastened to Siena. On his arrival he heard that he had been charged with embezzling the public money, and condemned to be burned, if he should fall into the hands of his enemies. His indignation now reached its height; and in despair of ever being restored to his native city except by arms, he repaired to Arezzo, and united his exertions to those of the other Bianchi, who, making common cause with the Ghibelines, formed themselves into an army with the object of entering Florence by force. But their hopes were disappointed ; and after four years of abortive attempts they dispersed, each in pursuit of his own fortune.


The noble, opulent citizen, the statesman and minister, the profound philosopher, accustomed in all and each of these characters to the respectful homage of his countrymen, was now, to' use his own words, " driven about by the cold wind that springs out of sad poverty," and compelled " to taste how bitter is another's bread; how hard it is to mount and to descend another's stairs." But the change from affluence to want was not the worst evil that awaited the high-minded patriot in banishment. For this he found compensation in the consciousness of having done his duty to his country. Bathe suffered much more from being mixed, and sometimes even confounded, with other exiles, whose perverse actions tended to disgrace the cause for which he had sacrificed all his private affections and interests. His misery was carried to the utmost by a continual struggle between his nice sense of honour and the pressure of want ; by an excessive fear that his intentions might be misunderstood, and a constant readiness to mistake those of others. This morbid feeling he has pathetically expressed in several passages, which can scarce be read without profound emotion.

In this mental torture he wandered throughout Italy, from town to town, and from the palace of one of his benefactors to that of another, without ever finding a resting place for his wounded spirit. He stooped in vain to address letters of supplication to the Florentines ; the rancour of his enemies was not to be softened by prayers.

Henry VII

Meanwhile the hopes of the Ghibelines were again raised, when Henry VII, who had been elected Emperor in 1308, entered Italy to regain the rights of sovereignty which his predecessors had lost. Elated by the better prospects which appeared to open, Dante became a strenuous advocate of the imperial cause. He composed a treatise on monarchy, in which he asserted the rights of the empire against the encroachments of the Court of Rome : he wrote a circular both to the Kings and Princes of Italy, and to the Senators of Rome, admonishing them to give an honourable reception to their Sovereign ; and he sent a hortatory epistle to the Emperor himself, urging him to turn his arms against Florence, and to visit that refractory city with severe punishment.

Henry did accordingly lay siege to Florence in September, 1312, but without success ; and the hopes of the Ghibelines were finally extinguished in the following August, by his death, under strong suspicion of poison. Thus Dante, in consequence of his recent conduct, saw himself farther than ever from restoration to his beloved Florence. The unfortunate exile, now reduced to despair, resumed his wanderings, often returning to Verona, where the Scaligeri family always received him at their court with peculiar kindness. It has been asserted that his thirst for knowledge led him to Paris and Oxford. His journey to England is still involved in doubt; but it appears certain, that he visited Paris, where he is said to have acquired great fame, by holding public disputations on several questions of theology.


On his return to Italy, he at length found a permanent refuge at Ravenna, at the court of Guido da Polenta, the father of that ill-fated Francesca da Rimini, for whom the celebrated episode of Dante has engaged the sympathy of Succeeding ages. The reception Which he experienced from this Prince, who was a patron of learning and a poet, *as marked by the reverence due to his character, no less than by the kindness excited by his misfortunes. In order to employ his diplomatic talents, and give him the pleasing consciousness of being useful to his host, Guido sent him as ambassador, to negotiate peace with 'Venice. Dante, happy at having an opportunity of evincing his gratitude to his benefactor, proceeded on his mission with sanguine expectation of success. But being unable to obtain a public audience from the Venetians, he returned to Ravenna, so overwhelmed with fatigue arid mortification, that he died shortly afterwards, in the fifty-seventh year of his age, A.D. 1321, receiving splendid obsequies from his disconsolate patron, who himself assumed the office of pronouncing a funeral oration on the dead body.

The portrait of Dante has been handed down to posterity, both by history and the arts. He is represented as a man of middle stature, with a pensive and melancholy egression of countenance. His face was long, his nose aquiline, his eyes rather prominent, but full of fire, his cheek bones large, and his under lip projecting beyond the upper one ; his complexion was dark, his hair and beard thick and curled. These featiires were so marked, that all his likenesses, Whether oh Medals, Or marble, Or canvas, bear a striking resemblance to each other. Boccaccio describes him as grave and sedate in his manners, courteous and civil in his address, and extremely temperate in his way of living ; *MIA Villani asserts, that he was harsh, reserved, and disdainful in his deportment. But the latter writer must have painted Dante such as he was in his exile, when the bitter cup of sorrow had changed the gravity of his temper into austerity. He spoke seldom, but displayed a remarkable subtleness in his answers. The consciousness of worth had inspired him with a noble pride which spurned vice in all its aspects, and disdained condescending to anything like flattery or dissimulation. Earnest in study, and attached to solitude, he was at times liable to fits of absence. The testimony of his con, temporaries, and the still better evidence of his own works, prove that his hours of seclusion were heedfully employed. He was intimately conversant with several languages ; extensively read in classical litera ture, and deeply versed in the staple learning of the age, scholastic theology, and the Aristotelian philosophy. He had acquired a considerable knowledge of geography, astronomy, and mathematics ; had made himself thoroughly acquainted with mythology and history, both sacred and profane ; nor had he neglected to adorn his mind with the more elegant accomplishments of the fine arts.

Dante's writings

The mass of Dante's writings, considering the unfavourable circumstances under which he laboured, is almost as wonderful as the extent of his attainments. The treatise De Monarchia,' which he composed on the arrival of Henry VII. in Italy, is one of the most ingenious productions that ever appeared, in refutation of the temporal pretensions of the Court of Rome. It was hailed with triumphant joy by the Ghibelines, and loaded with vituperation by the Guelfs. The succeeding emperor, Lewis of Bavaria, laid great stress on its arguments as supporting his claims against John XXII. ; and on that account, the Pope had it burnt publicly by the Cardinal du Pujet, his legate in Lombardy, who would even have disinterred and burnt Dante's body, and scattered his ashes to the wind, if some influential citizens had not interposed. Another Latin work, 'De Vulgari Eloquentia,' treats of the origin, history, and use of the genuine Italian tongue. It is full of interesting and curious research, and is still classed among the most judicious and philosophical works that Italy possesses on the subject. He meant to have comprised it in four books, but unfortunately only lived to complete two.

Of his Italian productions, the earliest was, perhaps, the Vita Nuova,' a mixture of mysterious poetry and prose, in which he gives a detailed account of his love for Beatrice. It is pervaded by a spirit of
soft melancholy extremely touching ; and it contains several passages having all the distinctness and individuality of truth; but, on the other hand, it is interspersed with visions and dreams, and metaphysical conceits, from which it receives all the appearance of an allegorical invention. He also composed about thirty sonnets, and nearly as many Canzoni,' or songs, both on love and morality. The sonnets, though not destitute of grace and ingenuity, are not distinguished by any particular excellence. The songs display a vigour of style, a sublimity of thought, a depth of feeling, and a richness of imagery not known before : they betoken the poet and the philosopher. On fourteen of these, he attempted in his old age to write a minute commentary, to which he gave the title of Convito,' or Banquet, as being intended " to administer the food of wisdom to the ignorant ;" but he could only extend it to three. Thus he produced the first specimen of severe Italian prose : and if he indulged rather too much in fanciful allegories and scholastic subtleties, these blemishes are amply counterbalanced by a store of erudition, an elevation of sentiment, and a matchless eloquence, which it is difficult not to admire.

These works, omitting several others of inferior value, would have been more than sufficient to place Dante above all his contemporaries ; yet, they stand at an immeasurable distance from the Divina Commedia,' the great poem by which he has recommended his name to the veneration of the remotest posterity. The Divine Comedy is the narrative of a mysterious journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, which he supposes himself to have performed in the year 1300, during the passion week, having Virgil as his guide through the two regions of woe, and Beatrice through that of happiness. No creation of the human mind ever excelled this mighty vision in originality and vastness of design ; nor did any one ever choose a more appropriate subject for the expression of all his thoughts and feelings. The mechanical construction of his spiritual world allowed him room for developing his geographical and astronomical knowledge : the punishments and rewards allotted to the characters introduced, gave him an excellent opportunity for a display of his theological and philosophical learning: the continual succession of innumerable spirits of different ages, nations, and conditions, enabled him to expatiate in the fields of ancient and modern history, and to expose thoroughly the degradation of Italian society in his own times ; while the whole afforded him ample scope for a full exertion of his poetical endowments, and for the illustration of the moral lesson, which, whatever his real meaning may have been, is ostensibly the object of his poem. Neither were his powers of execution inferior to those of conception. Rising from the deepest abyss of torture and despair, through every degree of suffering and hope, up to the sublimest beatitude, he imparts the most vivid and intense dramatic interest to a wonderful variety of scenes which he brings before the reader. Awful, vehement, and terrific in hell, in proportion as he advances through purgatory and paradise, he contrives to modify his style in such a manner as to become more pleasing in his images, more easy in his expressions, more delicate in his sentiments, and more regular in his versification.

His characters live and move ; the objects which he depicts are clear and palpable ; his similies are generally new and just ; his reflections evince throughout the highest tone of morality ; his energetic language. makes a deep and vigorous impression both on the reason and the imagination ; and the graphic force with which, by a few bold strokes, he throws before the eye of his reader a perfect and living picture, is wholly unequalled.

It is true, however, that his constant solicitude for conciseness and effect led him, sometimes, into a harsh and barbarous phraseology, and into the most unrestrained innovations ; but considering the rudeness of his age, and the unformed state of his language, he seems hardly open to the censure of a candid critic on this account. On the other hand, it is impossible not to wonder how, in spite of such obstacles, he could so happily express all the wild conceptions of his fancy, the most abstract theories of philosophy, and the most profound mysteries of religion. The occasional obscurity and coldness of the Divine Comedy proceeds much less from defects of style, than from didactic disquisitions and historical allusions which become every day less intelligible and less interesting.

To be understood and appreciated as a whole, and in its parts, it requires a store of antiquated knowledge which is now of little use. Even at the period of its publication, when its geography and  astronomy were not yet exploded, its philosophy and theology still current, and many of its incidents and personages still fresh in the memory of thousands, it was considered rather as a treasure of moral wisdom, than as a book of amusement.

The city of Florence, and several other towns of Italy, soon established professorships for the express purpose of explaining it to the public. Two sons of Dante wrote commentaries for its illustration: Boccaccio, Benvenuto da Imola, and many others followed the example in rapid succession ; and even a few years since Foscolo and Rossetti excited fresh curiosity and interest by the novelty of their views.

Notwithstanding the learning and ingenuity of all its expositors, the hidden meaning of the Divina Commedia' is not yet perfectly made out, though Rossetti, in his Spirito Antipapale,' lately published, seems to have shown, that under the exterior of moral precepts, it contains a most bitter satire against the court of Rome. But whether time shall remove these obscurities, or thicken the mist which hangs around this extraordinary production, it will be ever memorable as the mighty work which gave being and form to the beautiful language of Italy, impressed a new character on the poetry of modern Europe, and inspired the genius of Michael Angelo and of Milton.

There is no life of Dante which can be recommended as decidedly superior to the rest. The earliest is that of Boccaccio; but it evidently cannot be relied on for the facts of his life. There are others by Lionardo, Aretino, Fabroni, Pelli, Tiraboschi, &c. The English reader will find a fuller account prefixed to Mr. Carey's translation of the Divina Comtnedia,' and in Mr. Stebbing's Lives of the Italian Poets.