Dante Alighieri, Florentine poet, was born at Florence in May, 1265. The name Dante is a familiar abbreviation of Durante (as we have Bice for Beatrice); and the surname Alighieri, or Aldighieri, seems to have come into the family, who were originally Elisei, with the poet's great-great-grandmother, who belonged to Ferrara. Between her time and that of Dante two of the line - one of them Dante's father - were christened Aldighiero; and the name seems to have been the accepted patronymic when he was born. The family belonged to the popolani or burgher class, and like that class in general to the Guelf party. To explain this term shortly, it should be stated that during the 13th century Central Italy possessed no central government, but was divided into a number of small states, each depending on some city, all independent of, and generally at war with, each other. All recognised more or less the overlordship of the Roman Emperor, who at that time was usually a German by birth; but in practice they took very little heed of him, while the Popes of Rome, being close by, could exercise a more constant influence. Consequently two great parties came into existence, taking their names from those of certain German families, which in a former struggle for the Imperial Crown had been used as party cries. For Italy the origin of their names was forgotten. The Guelfs represented the cause of municipal independence and, therefore, of the retention of the division into small communities; the Ghibelines, who comprised most of the noble families - these being largely of Teutonic origin - supported the imperial authority and so far the unity of Italy. For the most part the Popes favoured the Guelfs, and these again, in their hostility to the empire, were largely responsible for the interference of the French in Italian affairs. At the time of Dante's birth the Ghibelines had for the moment the upper hand at Florence, and the leading Guelfs were in exile, but before long the victories of Charles of Anjou over the last scions of the Hohenstaufen family, Manfred and Conradin, broke down the Ghibeline power practically for ever. In 1273 they returned for a few years, but in 1275 they were finally banished; and from that time Florence was the mainstay of the Guelf party. In so restless a population, however, new divisions were sure to manifest themselves. In 1300 a quarrel, having its origin in a family feud at Pistoia, was transferred to Florence, and the Guelfs were divided into two parties, known as "Blacks "and Whites." These were headed respectively by the families of the Donati and the Cerchi. The former, representing the old Florentine burgher blood, had now grown into an overbearing aristocracy, while the latter, originally immigrants from the country districts, were more or less the popular party. Party feeling rose to a high pitch, and encounters took place in the streets. At length Pope Boniface VIII. intervened, and sent for the leaders to Rome. Vieri de' Cerchi, the chief of the White party, treated the matter contemptuously, and set the Pope against him. Boniface then sent Cardinal d'Acquasparta to Florence as mediator, but with no result. From June to August, 1301, Dante was one of the seven "Priors," who were elected every two months to act as the governing body of the republic; and in that capacity he took a share in the opposition to Boniface. In the following year Charles of Valois, brother of the King of France, was called in by the Pope to act the part of "pacificator" in Tuscany. He took the side of the Blacks, and the Whites, including Dante, were banished. After this they made common cause with the Ghibelines, and were finally merged in that party. Several attempts to return by force of arms were defeated, and Dante never entered his native city again.
After this digression, rendered necessary in order to show Dante's position with reference to the politics of his time, we can revert to the story of his life, so far as it is known. Several biographies of him were written in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; but even the earliest of these, written by Boccaccio within fifty years after Dante's death, cannot be taken as a very trustworthy authority, and others are of even less value. From the poet's own writings we know the date of his birth as already given, and that at the age of nine he met at a gathering of children a little girl one year younger than himself, who exercised a strange attraction upon him. He did not see her again for nine years, and then became deeply enamoured of her. It does not appear that they ever had more than the most distant acquaintance; and in due course she married another man, and died when Dante was twenty-five. A few years later he himself married Gemma Donati, by whom he had a large family. At the same time he represents himself as utterly overwhelmed by the loss of his early love, treating it, indeed, as a national calamity. Of her name he only tells us that it was Beatrice; but she was very early identified with the daughter of a Florentine gentleman, Folco Portinari, and the wife of Simone de Bardi. Some modern critics, indeed, have supposed that she is purely an abstraction. But no one is likely to take this view who is acquainted with mediaeval methods of expression and mediaeval amatory literature; nor, indeed, is it at all probable that Boccaccio, who must have spoken with many persons to whom the circumstances were known, should have made a mistake. Of Dante's life before his exile we know, besides what has been stated above, very little. He took his share in civic and military duties; he may have been present at the battle of Campaldino between the Florentine Guelfs and the Ghibelines of Arezzo in 1289, when the latter were defeated; and he tells us himself that he was present when the fortress of Caprona was surrendered by the Pisans in the same year to a mixed force of Florentines and Lucchese. At the age of thirty he took a step required by the constitution of Florence from every citizen who wished to take a share in the government, by joining one of the seven "greater arts" or guilds. The one selected by him was that of the apothecaries or medical men. It is said that the trade in manuscript books was in the hands of this guild, which probably determined Dante's choice. There is documentary evidence of his having been a member of the Council of the Podesta or chief magistrate and of other bodies of the same kind; and, as we have seen, in 1300 he served the office of Prior. All this time he must have been studying with vast diligence. In his knowledge both of literature and of science, moral and physical, he was surpassed by none of his contemporaries. "A great man of letters was he in almost every science, for all that he was a layman," says the historian John Villani, who knew him personally. His bent for study seems to have been encouraged by the famous Florentine savant and statesman, Brunetto Latini, who was an old man when Dante was a lad, but there is no evidence to show that he was ever, in the ordinary sense, Dante's tutor, as is often asserted.
After his banishment Dante visited for purposes of study Bologna and Paris, "and more parts of the world," says Villani. Some writers have imagined that England was among them, and that he visited Oxford. Of this it can only be said that we do not know that he did not. The only evidence for it is found in some Latin verses of Boccaccio's, where the words "visit extremes Britannos" are as likely as not to be a poetical exaggeration. Mainly, however, his time was spent in wandering about Italy. He was for a time at Verona, under the protection of the great family of La Scala; and we can trace him elsewhere by scraps of evidence from legal documents in which his name appears as that of a party or a witness. Thus we know that he was in Padua in August, 1306; and that later in the same year he went to the Marquis Malaspina in the Lunigiana, or country north-west of Pisa. His journey to Paris probably came after this. But his wanderings were cut short by the arrival, in 1310, of the newly-elected emperor, Henry of Luxemburg, in Italy, and Dante with other exiles hastened to join him. Shortly afterwards he addressed, from the confines of Tuscany "near the head-waters of the Arno," a letter to his fellow-citizens, full of taunts and reproaches, which they answered by renewing the sentence of banishment; and another to the emperor, urging him on to the task of subduing the city. Henry, however, passed Florence, and went on to Rome, where he was crowned by Cardinal Fieschi (the Pope was of course at Avignon) in June, 1312. On his return he besieged Florence for a month, withdrew to Pisa, and moved south in the next summer to attack the kingdom of Naples, which was a stronghold of the French party. At Siena he was taken ill, it was thought from poison, and died at Bonconvento August 24, 1313. With him the last hope of the Ghibeline cause vanished, and with it Dante's hopes of an universal empire. His successor, Lewis the Bavarian, kept up the struggle a little longer; but from that time the empire became more and more a German sovereignty. Dante became again a wanderer. After Henry's death he is said to have withdrawn for a time to the monastery of Croce d'Avellana, near Agubbio. On the death of Clement V., in 1314, he wrote a letter addressed to the Italian cardinals, with the hope of inducing them to elect an Italian Pope and restore the Holy See to Rome. In the summer of the same year the Ghibeline cause looked for a moment prosperous, under the famous leader Uguccione della Faggiuola; and Dante hastened to join him at Lucca. In August, 1315, Uguccione defeated the Florentines heavily at Montecatini, but in the following spring he was himself driven out. About this time the Florentines offered to their banished citizens permission to return, but only on condition of their submitting to the humiliation of a public confession of misdoing. In a letter "to a Florentine friend" Dante rejects this offer indignantly. "Far from the man, whose comrade is philosophy," he says, "be this baseness, fit only for a heart of mire." His last home was found at Ravenna, where he was honourably received and protected for the rest of his life by Guido of Polenta, lord of that town and of Rimini. Once he went back to Verona, on a visit to Can Grande della Scala, son of his old protector, Bartolommeo. His last public service was rendered in 1321, when he went as ambassador from Ravenna to Venice on behalf of the lord of Polenta, who was threatened with war from his neighbour. He returned ill, and died at Ravenna in July (or September), 1321. His tomb is still to be seen there.
Dante is, of course, best known to posterity by his great poem, La Commedia. This was the title which he himself gave to it; a later age added the epithet Divina, by which it has since been known. His reasons for calling the work a "comedy" are strange to our notions. In a letter to Can Grande della Scala he explains (by the aid of some curious etymology) that a comedy is that which begins in gloom and squalor and ends happily. The poem itself, which was entirely written after his exile, records a journey which he represents himself as having made under the guidance first of Virgil, then of Beatrice, through the realms of the next world - Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Into this framework he not only fits a whole scheme of political and moral philosophy (often couched in the form of allegory) and theology, but also innumerable judgments upon his contemporaries, and, indeed, upon distinguished persons of all ages in the world's history. It is the first great work of Italian literature, and remains incomparably the greatest. Besides this, he wrote many odes and sonnets, some of extreme beauty. The best known of these are embodied in his early work, The New (or Young) Life, in which the story of his youthful passion for Beatrice is related in the mystical style of the time. Later he began The Banquet, a kind of prose summary of his ethical and social creed, in the form of a commentary on certain of his odes. Of the projected fourteen books only four were written, but these form a valuable aid to the study of the Commedia. In Latin he wrote a treatise, Of Monarchy, expounding his views as to the government of mankind, and maintaining his theory of the empire. It is a wonderful monument of scholastic argumentation. He also began, but did not complete, a work, On the Vulgar Tongue, an attempt to settle a common form of the Italian language, interesting as an early attempt at scientific philology; and an Enquiry Concerning Land, and Water (of not quite certain authenticity), which purports to have been delivered at Verona in the year before his death.