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Dante Alighieri | Biography

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Dante Alighieri was born c. May 21–June 20, 1265, in the Italian city-state of Florence. When Dante was just seven, his mother died and his father took a new wife. Dante was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati at age 12, and they married when he was about 20 years old. However, the real love of Dante's young life was another woman, Beatrice Portinari. The exact nature of Dante's love for Beatrice is unclear, but scholars believe Dante loved her from afar, with little actual contact. Dante claimed to have met her only twice in his life; the second meeting was nine years after the first. She died about five years after his marriage. The poems Dante wrote to her were collected into a book called La Vita Nuova, or The New Life. Like the Divine Comedy, this book of verse was written in Italian, which was unusual at the time, most literature still being written in Latin. By writing in Italian, Dante indicated he wanted his works to be available to a wider audience, not just the small educated class. In the Divine Comedy his love for Beatrice is instrumental in sending Virgil to guide Dante back to the true path. She becomes his guide once he has ascended Mount Purgatory and reached the Earthly Paradise at its peak.

Dante's family was part of the complex political scene of Florence dominated by the familial rivalry between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs supported the pope in an ongoing struggle for power with the Holy Roman Emperor, while the Ghibellines supported the emperor. Dante became more involved in these political tensions after he fought with the Guelphs in the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, where the Guelphs were victorious over the Ghibellines. However, further fracturing of the Guelphs into different parties led to Dante's exile from Florence and the seizure of his property and money. Once a well-respected poet and a prominent citizen, he became a wandering outcast who felt betrayed and disillusioned by Florentine politics. Although he regarded his exile bitterly, he lived comfortably in Verona and then Ravenna, two other northern Italian cities, and over the years he wrote the Divine Comedy, an epic allegorical poem rich with symbolism, philosophy, theology, and moral teaching. Interestingly, the setting of the Divine Comedy as it begins is the year 1300, before his exile.

Purgatory is the second of the three volumes of the Divine Comedy. After its publication poets and critics alike grappled with the Divine Comedy, and by the time of Dante's death, a growing body of literary criticism had begun to accumulate. Besides breaking language conventions by writing in Italian and introducing a new poetic form to the world, the Divine Comedy continues to be recognized as one of the major works of all literature for its poetic excellence. Its artful use of image, figurative language, irony, humor, and other literary elements is among the best poetry has to offer. Moreover, the Divine Comedy showcases what is perhaps Dante's single greatest contribution to poetic form: terza rima. This rhyme scheme features interlocking three-line stanzas in which the middle line of one stanza rhymes with the first and last lines of the stanza beneath it. The result is an auditory chain-link pattern that heightens the poem's sense of continuity and forward momentum. Some translators—though certainly not all—have attempted to render the 14,000 lines of the Divine Comedy in the English equivalent of terza rima. Others have opted for blank verse or even prose.

Dante died on September 13 or 14, 1321, in Ravenna without ever returning to Florence. He remains one of the greatest of all cultural figures and is commemorated as an Italian icon throughout his native city in works of art, place names, statuary, and countless images of all kinds.

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