Dante Alighieri: A Poetic Descent into Metaphorical Hell

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"

Only through a journey into hell can we hope to attain paradise...

His Early Life:

Dante Alighieri was born under the sign of Gemini, he was thought to be
born on May 29, but this is not certain. He was born in Florence, the son of
Alighiero II, his family was one of lower nobility. His mother died when he was a
child and his father when he was eighteen. According to him, the most profound
event in his youth was when in 1274 he met Beatrice, whom scholars believe to
be Beatrice Portinari, a noble woman. It really matter’s not who she was, for he
saw her infrequently and never spoke to her. Nevertheless she became the
focus of his love, and after her death she became his muse. She is a focal point
in his works, including La vita nuova(The New Life) and La divina commedia(The
Divine Comedy). Dante’s education remains an unknown, however his writing
skill and knowledge make it evident that he was well schooled. It is thought that
he attended Florentine schools but also continued learning on his own. He
seemed to be influenced greatly by Brunetto Latini, who has a large part in The
Divine Comedy. His early writings attracted the attention of Guido Cavalcanti, a
popular Italian poet of the day, as Dante’s skill became more defined the two
became friends. It is also thought that Dante studied at the university in Bologna
around the year 1285.
He became involved in some political altercations, he joined the Guelphs,
as opposed to the Chibellines, and he was involved in a battle and emerged
victorious. It was around this time, 1290, that Beatrice died, after she died he
began studying philosophy, he read the works of Boethius and Cicero. He soon
after married Gemma Donati, a member of a noble Florentine Guelph family. He
attempted to settle down and forget Beatrice, however he became more and
more engulfed in the party scene, he discovered the pleasure of banquets, and
was seen engaged in public rhyming contests. These contests were a sort of
poetic insult contest that often decayed into vulgarity. Thankfully, this period did
not last long, in 1295, Dante suddenly became very interested in the political
situation in Florence.

His Adult Life:

In the year 1295 he held several local offices, he was then elected to be
one of the six magistrates of Florence, however, he held this position only two
months. Dante, from 1295 to 1297, was part of the Special Council of the
People, he also took part in the campaign for the prior, and was a member of the
Council of the One Hundred. The political situation in Florence at the time was
very turbulent, the two feuding factions within the Guelph party in Florence, the
Cerchi and the Donati or the Whites and The Blacks were both vying for power.
The Blacks, or Donati, were of noble birth and lineage but were not exceedingly
rich, and they saw the pope as an ally against imperial power. The Whites, or
Cerchi, were not of noble lineage, but had made a vast fortune trading and
wished to become a part of the aristocracy, they wished to remain independent of
all control, papal or imperial. After a particularly violent skirmish the leaders of
both parties were exiled in order to provide peace, however, Pope Boniface VIII
helped the leaders of the Black return. These Blacks seized power and banned
Dante from the city for two years and imposed upon him heavy fines, he did not
pay the fines, and they said he would be killed should he ever return to Florence.
Dante’s immediate response was a desire to join with the other exiles and
organize, they would retake the city by force. The exiled people were more
concerned with their own interests than retaking Florence, the movement never
even really got underway. There were a few isolated skirmishes, called the Wars
of Mugello, but they were all unsuccessful. Dante was disgusted by the utter lack
of motivation in his companions, and he decided to go his own way.
Dante spent time in Northern Italy and in Verona, he made his way to Paris
around 1307, there he joined the Ghibellines, hoping to unite all of Europe under
the reign of an "enlightened emperor"1. There are no certain records
documenting Dante’s travels so most of the information on this period is mere
speculation. It is thought that while in Northern Italy Dante wrote De Vulgari
Eloquentia(Concerning the Common Speech)