Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)

The medieval poet and writer whose "Divine Comedy" helped codify the modern Italian language

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) was a minor politician and closet scribbler whose political career fizzled and died but whose poetry went on to become among the most famous works of all time and, because of its fame, pretty much codified Dante's early 14th century Tuscan dialect as the basis for modern Italian.

How important is he in Italy? They put his portrait (taken from a fresco by Raphael, pictured to the right on the bottom) on the largest coin they could: the Italian €2 ($2) piece.

Few, outside of Italian high school students, ever read Dante's La Vita Nuova ("New Life") poetry collection, and only scholars bother with his lesser works, but just about everyone has heard of Dante's Inferno.

Inferno is actually just the first of three books in Dante's Divine Comedy magnum opus, a medieval masterpiece of an epic poem in which Dante takes a highly metaphorical tour through the afterlife during Easter Week of the year 1300.

(The two subsequent books were Purgatorio and Paradiso, but—just like in a good Renaissance fresco of the Last Judgment—it is Hell, the Inferno, full of demons and sinners and their torments, that is by far the most interesting).

The Dante alter ego in the story is guided through the first two realms of afterlife by the shade of the Roman poet Virgil.

But in Paradise—which, as a pagan, Virgil cannot enter—Dante is accompanied instead by the ghost of his beloved Beatrice (pronounced bay-ah-TREE-chay in Italian).

Beatrice was not Dante's actual wife (Dante married a woman named Gemma Donati), but rather the beautiful girl next door who was Dante's first love-from-afar, whom he met precisely twice in his life (once when Dante was nine and she eight, again when he was 18), and who died at the age of 24.

This wasn't as creepy or as heartless as it sounds to modern ears.

Think of the knights of old, who had earthly lovers and/or wives but also had "courtly loves" and fought in the name of their queen or carried favors of their lord's lady into battle. (This is why Lancelot's affair with Arthur's Guinevere was so scandalous; you were supposed to love your queen from afar, not in your actual bed.)

Well, medieval artists often had both a practical, everyday wife at home but then found their muse in a more pure, chaste, quasi-Heavenly love for another woman, often one of higher station, in whose name they privately fought their own battles with inspiration.

Great, so why doesn't the Dante Museum in Florence have, like, Dante's writing desk or something?

Here's a fact most Florentine tourism officials don't like to talk about: Dante wrote the works for which he is most famous after he left Florence for good.

The Divine Comedy was written while Dante was living out the final 21 years of his life in exile.

So why was the greatest writer in Italian history—one of the great world poets of all time—exiled? He had the bad luck of throwing in with the wrong political party, the White Guelfs.

When the Black Guelfs, backed by France, marched into Florence in 1301 and seized power, Dante was in Rome as part of a White Guelf embassy to the pope to try to convince him to back the Whites.

With the Black Guelfs in charge of Florence, Dante was subsequently convicted in absentia on trumped up charges—as was just about every other White Guelf. He was ordered to stay out of Florence for two years and to pay a hefty fine.

Since Dante felt he had done nothing wrong, he refused to pay and, as a result, never returned to his beloved hometown.

He roamed Italy, staying with sympathetic friends, from Rome to Lucca to Verona, and finally to Ravenna.

Dante died, in Ravenna, in 1321 and his body remains there to this day.

Trust me; that's the short version of the great poet's life—and an extreme glossing over of the major political conflagration of his age (see the sidebar on the right).

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