The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

Excerpt

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence about the middle of May, 1265. The city, then under its first democratic constitution, was sharply divided between the Papal party of the Guelphs and the Imperial party of the Ghibellines. Dante's family were adherents of the Guelph faction, and when Dante was only a few months old, the Guelphs obtained decisive victory at the Battle of Benevento. Although of noble ancestry, the Alighieri family was neither wealthy nor particularly prominent.

It seems probable that Dante received his early education at the Franciscan school of Santa Croce. He evidently owed much to the influence of Brunetto Latini, the philosopher and scholar who figured largely in the councils of the Florentine commune. Before twenty, he began writing poetry and became associated with the Italian poets of the "sweet new style," who exalted their love and their ladies in philosophical verse. Dante's "lady," whom he celebrated with singular devotion, was a certain Beatrice. According to Boccaccio's life of Dante, she was Beatrice Portinari, daughter of a Florentine citizen, who married a wealthy banker, and died when she was but twenty- four. Dante first sang of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova (1292), a sequence of poems with prose comment in which he recounts the story of his love, of the first meeting when they were both nine years of age, the exchange of greetings which passed between them on May Day, I283, and of Beatrice's death in 1290.

Upon turning thirty, Dante became actively involved in Florentine politics. The constitution of the city was based upon the guilds, and Dante, upon his enrolment in the guild of physicians and apothecaries, which also included book dealers, became eligible for office.

He participated in the deliberations of the councils, served on a special embassy, and in 1300 was elected one of the six priors that governed the city. The former struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines had appeared in new form in the conflict between the Whites and the Blacks. As one of the priors, Dante seems to have been influential in the move to lessen factionalism by banishing from Florence the rival leaders, including among the Blacks his wife's relative, Corso Donati, and among the Whites his "first friend," the poet, Guido Cavalcanti. Despite the opposition of Dante and the White leaders to Papal interference in Florentine affairs, Pope Boniface VIII in 1301 invited Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip of France, to enter Florence to settle the differences between the two factions. Actually he assisted the Blacks to seize power, and more than six hundred Whites were condemned to exile. In 1302 Dante, with four others of the White party, was charged with corruption in office. He was condemned to pay a fine of five thousand florins within three days or lose his property, exiled for two years, and denied the right ever again to hold public office. Three months later, upon his refusal to pay the fine, Dante was condemned to be burned alive if he should come within the power of the republic.

"After it was the pleasure of the citizens of the most beautiful and most famous daughter of Rome, Florence, to chase me forth from her sweet bosom," Dante writes of his exile in the Convivio, "I have gone through almost every region to which this tongue of ours extends, showing against my will the wound of fortune." It is recorded that Dante attended a meeting at San Godenzo, where an alliance was formed between the Whites in exile and the Ghibellines, but he does not seem to have been present in 1304 when the combined forces were defeated at Lastra. Perhaps he had already separated himself from the "evil and foolish company" of his fellow-exiles, "formed a party by himself," and found his "first refuge and hostelry" at the court of the Della Scalas in Verona. Probably during the following years he spent time at Bologna and later at Padua, where Giotto is said to have entertained him. Toward the end of 1306 he was the guest of the Malaspinas in Lunigiana and acted as their ambassador in making peace with the Bishop . . .

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