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Dante’s Life and Work

Dante: The Divine Comedy and Other Works

By Dara Webb

Dante Alighieri is heralded as the first and indeed one, if not the most, influential Italian poets of all time. Known specifically for his famous Divine Comedy, Dante often comments on religion, something so incredibly crucial to life during the 14th century; indeed, his other works, such as De Monarchia discuss religious law and as The Cambridge Guide to Dante states, “share this pattern of self-commentary” (Jacoff 35). While not as famous, his other works are just as crucial to the development of Italian literature and in the establishment of a vernacular Italian language and solidifying its importance.

Of course, Dante’s most famous work is the Divine Comedy, which follows Dante’s progression through Hell, Purgatory and, eventually, Heaven. The work incorporates figures important to Dante’s life on a multitude of levels. Dante includes Pope Boniface VIII as a figure which represents spiritual corruption, for example, a comment on the sour relationship between the two. The epic includes Beatrice as an angel as well as Virgil as Dante’s guide through Purgatory. The work contains, like most of Dante’s works, moral, religious, philosophical and political issues. Especially poignant is his experience in the second circle of Hell, where he encounters Paolo and Francesca; love is an important symbol in the Divine Comedy and that of Paolo and Francesca’s is a complicated example. As the two are in hell because of an unspecific love or lust, perhaps the example was more shocking at the time as it shows the line between both is narrow and often blurry, but there is an albeit subtle difference. At the end of Canto V, we see Dante faint, overcome by the story; perhaps this is because he recognizes this story could have been his and is overcome by emotion, especially as he seems to empathize, if not sympathize with their situation, “Thine agonies, Francesca/Sad and compassionate to weeping make me” (Alighieri 33). Ideas such as this, where lust is condemned as a sin by the Church and papacy, especially in Dante’s time, are advanced and even contradictory to papal authority and the traditional values of the time. This self-reflection, however, contributes to what has already been acknowledged as self-commentary.

La Vita Nuova is a collection of love poetry and Dante’s first work. La Vita Nuova was dedicated to Beatrice, a recurring figure in Dante’s work and a woman he loved, seemingly unrequited, even after her death. While in no respect Dante’s best work, La Vita Nuova is shocking for a thirteenth century work. It is “blasphemous in the way it glorifies a mortal woman” (Jacoff 36). As previously stated, the Church influenced almost all aspects of life at the time, and this glorification of Beatrice is another example of Dante pushing the boundaries of his time. The audience of La Vita Nuova was fairly restricted, mostly to poets within Dante’s circle, which may have shielded it from criticism from the Church. However, it is important to explore how even at the beginning of his career, young Dante still challenged the boundaries of papal rule and even moral and philosophical questions. Though this work did not reach the larger audience of his other works, it is an important example of Dante as a developing poet.

Dante’s Convivio differs to the previously mentioned works; it addresses philosophical arguments as well as some political, touching also on some basics of the sciences and arts. Most importantly, it is written in the Italian vernacular. This vernacular presentation of such things would have been incredibly important to society; it meant that the illiterate masses would have been able to have at least oral access to advances of the time. With the introduction of a vernacular to literature there was a movement towards mass literacy, but equally some form of education to the masses. The integration of a common Italian language to Italian literature is also a crucial development on Dante’s behalf; literature before this point may have been written in a region-specific dialect, but for the most part was written in Latin. With the introduction of a source of information written in a common language, it made the information a little less elitist; normally, education like this was reserved for a higher, male class. While common language literature may not have instituted class equality (but may have contributed towards it), it indeed made information a little more readily available to the lower classes – or those who had access to literature, at any rate. He changes his audience from primarily women to a primarily male one, and this is a large step forward from La Vita Nuova.

De Monarchia follows again in a similar vein as most of Dante’s other works; while indeed most of his works followed a religious path, De Monarchia discusses both religious and secular power. Dante’s viewpoints on these matters, regardless of De Monarchia, were controversial at best. His viewpoint on papal demands in Florence, for example, led to a conflict between himself and Pope Boniface VIII and Dante’s lifelong exile from his birthplace of Florence. To challenge the papacy or even promote discourse on papal rule was taboo; the Pope was the most powerful man in Europe at the time. Dante’s outright resistance and distaste for the Pope is evidence of his character, and he does not shield his personal views from much of his work. This is an important aspect as mentioned, including his self-commentary throughout his work.

De Vulgari Eloquentia was an essay written by Dante, dealing with the development of the vernacular language, and the relationship between Latin and the vernacular Italian language. The development and utilization of the a common language in literature has been an important development in the history of every country. Indeed, one of the biggest developments in the 16th century Reformation, for example, was the development of a vernacular bible instead of the only Latin, mass distributed vulgate. Though the Reformation was a few centuries after Dante, even during Dante’s time the majority of people were illiterate and most did not even understand Latin. The development of vernacular literature meant that the masses could at least understand what was being read to them, allowing a small step towards mass literacy. Indeed, he “insists from the outset on the greater nobility of the vernacular” (Jacoff 58). His belief in the mass use of a common language is perhaps a large step towards the common use of the vernacular in Italian poetry and indeed everyday life.de_vulgari_eloquentia

Dante Alighieri is aptly described as one of Italy’s most important poets. His works are diverse, but each addresses critical developments in what would become Italian society. Without the introduction of a vernacular Italian language, for example, Italian unity and mass literacy may have come far later. His criticisms of policies at the time and outright disagreements with some papal rule may have landed him in exile, but without these criticisms and essays it is impossible to tell how society reacted negatively to papal rule. Dante’s introduction of a common Italian language to poetry and political observations laid the foundation for later Italian poets and authors. Without his contributions, the Italian literary system would be unrecognizable, and Dante Alighieri has left an indelible mark on the Italian literary system.



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Public Domain, 1555. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. La Vita Nuova. Dover Publications, 2012. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. De Monarchia. Bibliolife, 2011. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. Il Convivio. Public Domain, 1321. iBook file.

Alighieri, Dante. De Vulgari Eloquentia. Scrivere, 2012. iBook file.

Jacoff, Rachel. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Dante’s life

By Tamara Grasty


Dante Alighieri was born in Florence on May 12th in 1265. His family had a long standing history of political involvement which would later have a deep impact on his adult life and literary works. Around the time when he lost his mother in 1273 Pope Gregory IX and Charles of Anjou met to create peace between the city’s opposing Guelfs and Ghibellines; Dante was a Guelf. Guelf’s supported the political autonomy of Florence. The Ghibellines supported papal control which opposed the Hohenstaufen emperors. Charles Anjou had defeated the Hohenstaufen armies in Benevent around 1265 with approval from the papacy and the Guelfs. This made the Guelfs a powerful party in Florence around the time of Dante’s birth. By the end of the century, the Guelfs had splintered into White and Black factions as a result of family rivalries and differing economic interests and loyalty to the pope. The Blacks were more committed to Guelf and papal interests while the whites were more moderate. The early defeat of the Guelfs, known as Montaperti is mentioned in Inferno 10. The festival of this event may have been the source of such rich inspiration for Purgatoria or Paradiso. In addition to the political rivalries, there were rivalries between noble families, like the Donati and Cerchi. When he was nine he met Beatrice Portinari, his childhood love and a lifelong muse. When he was twelve, he was betrothed to Gemma Donati, a daughter of family friends.

During his adolescence he pretended not to like Beatrice in order to make her jealous and love him more. However, this plan backfired and instead she grew to dislike him. She eventually married someone else and he continued to admire her from afar. Dante’s father remarried and Dante had half sibling, Tana and Francesco, who were close to him. During his childhood, he attended grammar school run by the Dominicans and subsequently to the school of Santa Croce where he was trained in classical and Medieval Latin texts. There he encountered poetry and literature from the Provence and France. When Dante is 18, his father dies and he marries Gemma Donati. Together they have four children, Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, who were all named after apostles who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, and Antonia. This is when enters public life.

He was originally optimistic as it meant meeting aristocrats, office-holders, educators, poets and rich merchants. This would presumably lead to friendships with some of the most influential people in his area including Brunetto Latini, a prominent intellectual, Guido Cavalcanti, a poet, and Cino da Pistia, an aristocrat. This is also how he became acquainted with Nino Visconti and Guido da Polenta. This is where he first heard the legend of Paolo Malatesa and Francesca Polenta, which inspired a canto in the Inferno. By this point the lovers had already died although it had happened so recently that rumors still circulated. Because of that canto, people are still investigating their deaths.

In 1289 Dante was a soldier in the battle of Campaldino against Arezzo, this victory brought the Guelf party back into power. Despite his political and martial involvement, he kept writing. He wrote a collection of sonnets called Il Fiore, Vita Nuova and Il Detto. Vita Nuova contains allusions to his lifelong love, Beatrice and as a work it marks his shift in literary style as he tries to portray the unique, profound love. On June 8, 1290, Beatrice dies, devastating Dante. In addition to this, another blow is dealt as Pope Boniface VIII was inaugurated in 1294 after the death of Pope Celestine V. In 1294 Dante met King Charles Martel of Hungary.


A year later, Dante shifted his attention toward politics. In 1300, Dante became one of six Florentine Priors. During his two month tenure, from June 15th until August 15th, the priors decide to exile the leaders of the Black and White Guelf factions, which includes one of Dante’s friends, Guido Cavalcanti, who died later in August of the same year. After Dante’s summer tenure expired, the White faction leaders were recalled from exile. However, Pope Boniface VIII was against the moderate White party and so he called the French King Charles of Valois to militarily intervene. Dante was sent on an embassy to Pope Boniface VIII to try to persuade him against the invasion of Tuscany. It was during this time that Pope Boniface VIII allowed the loyal Black Guelfs to exile the White leaders, including Dante and many of his friends. The punishment for returning from exile without permission was death. His wife, Gemma Donati, had strong family ties to Florence and was not particularly important to his social activities or even his literary work work, nor was she invested in his public affairs. Because of this, when he was exiled his family was not.

The length of his exile was partly due to a highly critical letter he wrote to the Pope Boniface during his exile which detailed his support of the Roman emperor, which was the power opposing the papal control. His exile was never lifted; the nineteen years he spent in exile, were the worst of his life. He loved Florence and would never return. During his exile he was lonely and distraught as he constantly traveling from city to city which makes pinpointing his activities difficult. In 1308 he began writing his most famous work, the Divine Comedy. However, it is known that he conspired in a military seizure of Florence. It is also known that he spent time in Forli, Verona, Arezzo, where he was said to have met Ser Pertaccco, Treviso, Pauda, where he met Giotto who was working on the Scrovengni Chapel, Venice, Lunigiana, and Lucca.

He eventually settled in Verona in 1312 and resettled again in Ravenna with his host Guido Novella of Polenta in 1319. These years of exile are reflected greatly in his works with grim clarity. He eventually accepted he would never return to Florence again. It is not known why Dante agreed to leave Verona for Ravenna, however, it was a beautiful, contemplative place reminiscent of Byzantine times and Emperor Justinian which helped evoke the final images of Purgatoria and Paradiso. This is the city where he finished the last cantons of Paradiso. Dante died on September 13, 1321. He was buried in a tomb adjoining a Franciscan monastery and although his remains were moved over time they have never left the city. Although Florence has since tried to retrieve Dante’s bones, they did not honor him publically for many centuries. It wasn’t until 1830 when the first proper Florentine monument was built for him.

Dante’s writings and poetry have marked him as one of the greatest Italian authors in history although his political contributions were also significant in his time. His work in life reflect the importance of religion in Papal States. Catholicism guided daily interactions as well as inspiring timeless works of art through music, painting and literature. His most famous work, the Divine Comedy, is an ode to the religious moral imperatives prominent of his time. Through this work he intended to entertain while instructing his readers on how to live a righteous life. This work, was written, in part, to atone for his earlier poetry which he believes may have encouraged others to sin. His struggle with unholy or lustful love in relation to his muse Beatrice was difficult, but he managed to overcome his flesh and abide by his wife and children fulfilling his role as an Italian catholic patriarch.

Works Cited

“Dante Biography: Philosopher, Scholar, Poet.” A&E Networks Television, 2014. Web. 27 April 2014. <;.

Forman, Robert J. “Dante.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (2013): Research Starter. Web. 30 April 2014.

Jacoff, Rachel. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

O’Connor, Anne. “Dante Alighieri- From Absence to Stony Presence: Building Memories in Nineteenth-Century Florence.” Italian Studies (2012): 307-335. Humanities International Complete. Web. 30 April 2014.

Wetherbee, Winthrop. “Dante Alighieri.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 29 Jan. 2001. Web. 25 April 2014. <;.







By Leslie Morales

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece of medieval Italy, not only due to its extensive influence, but also due to its broad symbolism and literary genius. When one studies the Divine Comedy, it is important to discuss Dante’s political affiliation, the influence of his beloved Beatrice, and the poet’s attention to the individual passage that men must take to join the inherent order of the Universe. These concepts are crucial in understanding the Divine Comedy since they represent a larger view of the medieval world that many, including Dante, shared. This view encompassed the corruption of the church and the common hope for justice preached to take place in the after-life.


In a letter addressed to Can Grande della Scala, which can be found in Mark Musa’s “Introduction to Dante and His Works,” Dante sets forth his purpose and method in writing the Divine Comedy. In it, Dante speaks of the different meanings contained in the work, he writes,

“For the clarity of what will be said, it is to be understood that this work is not simple, but rather it is polysemous, that is, endowed with many meanings… The first is called “literal” and the second “allegorical”… inasmuch as they are different from the literal or historical.”[1]

This letter tells the reader of the work’s mixture of history, mythology, and theology to form a whole work that conveys a story through the dictation of many others. Furthermore, the letter also connects the reader to Dante’s reason for labeling his masterpiece as a comedy.

According to Mark Musa, Dante stated that the word “comedy” derives from comus and oda that together mean a “rustic song.”[2] Musa continues to explain that unlike a tragedy, which begins in tranquility but comes to a sad end, Dante saw his work as a comedy. Dante argued that a comedy may begin under adverse circumstances, but can always have a happy ending so his work should be labeled as such. Furthermore, the author’s choice of the Tuscan dialect instead of Latin as the language of his poem is a sign of the humility that Dante wrote his poem with. According to Musa, “the language of comedy is humble, whereas that of tragedy is lofty.”[3] In other words, because the Divine Comedy begins in Hell, but has a happy ending in Paradise and was written in a vernacular language known to common men, Dante titled his work the Commedia.[4]


Although not much is known about Dante Alighieri, what is known is that he was born in Florence sometime in late May or early June in 1265. As Robert Hollander, a Princeton University Professor, states Dante was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione d’Alighiero and Donna Bella.[5] Dante’s family was considered noble by reason of titles and dignities but they held modest economic and social circumstances. Hollander continues to explain that like most of Florence’s lesser nobility Dante’s family was affiliated with the Guelf Party, which supported the pope, but later held allegiance for the imperial party when faced with the church’s corruption.[6]


It is important to note Dante’s political life when one explores the Divine Comedy because it shows the change in the poet’s political focus shift from the Empire towards the Church. In his earlier book, De monarchia, Dante writes of the intellectual benefits that a global community under one ruler could bring to humanity.[7] This idea was revolutionary because in Dante’s day, the only existing universal community was the Church. However, the Church condemned his idealistic work since it implied that happiness could be achieved without the Church, a statement that an individual considered a heretic would make in Dante’s time. [8] Hence, he was forced to realize that neither the monarch nor the empire but rather the pope and the Church would dominate Italian politics. Dante’s dissatisfaction is noticeable throughout various passages of the Divine Comedy. For example, in Purgatory canto XVI, Dante the Pilgrim encounters Marco Lombardo who explains that the current leadership of the church has been the reason why the world has gone corrupt:

On Rome, that brought the world to know the good,

Once shone two suns that lighted up two ways:

The road of the world and the road of God.

The one sun has put out the other’s light,

The sword is now one with the crook – and fused

Together thus, must bring about misrule,

Since joined, now neither fears the other one. [9]

This conversation shows the lament that Dante carried towards the corruption and control that the Pope and the church held in Italy and most of Western Europe.


Apart from Dante’s political stance, it is equally important to discuss his beloved Beatrice’s influence on his work. In the Divine Comedy, Beatrice encompasses Dante’s earthly love for her and the divinity that she adopts in his literary after-life. Beatrice as a guide to the Pilgrim is often identified as “divine revelation” and “wisdom”.[10] She, along with Virgil, personifies the light that guides the Pilgrim through his journey, for this reason many see her as Dante’s representation of all that is good, as well as the theological personification of grace. [11] Beatrice’s long lasting influence on the poet can be seen in Mark Musa’s statement that, “Dante’s emotional attachment to Beatrice brought him to idealize her more and more as the guide of his thoughts and feelings.”[12] As a result it came as no surprise that Beatrice played a major role in his poem as the pilgrim’s guide; serving as a reflection of Dante’s real life infatuation with her.

Although no one knows when Dante began composing the Divine Comedy, some argue as early as 1307[13], what is known is that Inferno was completed by 1314.[14] And as Boccaccio states, the final touches to Paradise were made in 1321, the year of Dante’s death.[15] The Divine Comedy consists of 100 cantos, divided into three major canticles: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each section contains thirty-three cantos, with Inferno being the exception. Inferno has 34 cantos because it includes the opening canto that serves as an introduction to the poem as a whole. As the reader can see, the appearance of the number three is eminent throughout the whole poem- three canticles with thirty-three cantos each. Dante’s obsession with the number three in the Divine Comedy can be accounted to the number’s importance in Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity and can be further observed in the rhyme structure that Dante developed for the poem.

For the Divine Comedy, Dante invented a rhyme scheme known as terza rime, tertiary rhyme.[16] As Musa explains, Dante divided each canto into three line stanzas in which the first and third line rhyme with each other while the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next terzina and so on. Dante’s devotion to the number three can be interpreted as the poet’s wish to make a connection to the Christian Holy Trinity of God, Son, and Holy Spirit in his work. As one explores Dante’s poem, one can’t help but notice the increasing importance that the individual and human spirituality take as the Pilgrim’s journey unfolds.

Dante centers the Divine Comedy on the individual journey that men must take in order to become one with the Universe. Although the drama of the poem centers on the Pilgrim’s journey to God, its main idea is the movement of the soul towards its final goal: to become one with the Universe. This idea of becoming one with the Universe can be seen in the last lines of Paradise,

But as a wheel in perfect balance turns,

I felt my will and my desire impelled

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.[17]

This line is important because it shows Dante’s affinity and belief in a higher order of the universe. Furthermore, the overall intricate execution of the poem can be seen in Dante’s technique to end each canticle of his masterpiece with the word “stars.” This method not only emphasizes the author’s kinship with celestial entities but also marks the genius of Dante’s work. In the article, “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality” by Robert Royal, the author points out that the key point for a reader to keep while reading the Divine Comedy is that Dante meant what he said – that the Divine Comedy is about the divine, that it tells the tale of the soul’s journey to God. He writes, “If we fail to see the Divine Comedy as spirituality, we’ll never grasp it as poetry.”[18] This statement is evident in the tone of the poem and the lightness and divinity that Dante writes Paradise with. I agree with Royal’s attention to the spiritual aspect of Dante’s masterpiece and I trust that in my paper I was able to transmit to the reader a clear introduction of the vital topics that are essential in understanding and appreciating the Divine Comedy.

Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy is an outstanding example of literary genius due its intricate allegories and symbolism. Moreover, when one studies Dante’s epic poem it is important to consider Dante’s political affiliation, the influence of Beatrice as a character and person, and the author’s affinity with the order of the Universe. All three topics are crucial in the understanding of the Divine Comedy and the underlying meanings the poem offers. The Divine Comedy serves as a reflection of the views shared by many in medieval Europe; Dante along with others, exposed in their works the corruption and beliefs that they witnessed, offering present day readers a door into their world.



Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984.


Boccaccio, Giovanni. Life of Dante. Translated by Philip H. Wicksteed. Richmond: OneWorld Classics, 2009.


Hollander, Robert. “Biography of Dante Alighieri.” Princeton Dante Project. Accessed May 3, 2014.


Lafferty, David. “A Beginner’s Guide to Dante – An Introduction to The Divine Comedy.” David Lafferty Website, June 18, 2008. Accessed May 3, 2014.


Musa, Mark. Introduction to The Divine Comedy. Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984.


Royal, Robert. “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality.” In The Wilson Quarterly, 122. Washington, D.C.: Wilson Quarterly, 1999.








[1] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 42.

[2] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 42.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43. Musa explains that the word Divina was not part of Dante’s original title.

[5] Robert Hollander, “Biography of Dante Alighieri,” Princeton Dante Project, accessed May 3, 2014,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 41.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Volume 2: Purgatory, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), XVI. 106- 112.

[10] David Lafferty, “A Beginner’s Guide to Dante – An Introduction to The Divine Comedy,” David Lafferty Website, June 18, 2008, accessed May 3, 2014,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 19.

[13] Robert Hollander, “Biography of Dante Alighieri,” Princeton Dante Project, accessed May 3, 2014,

[14] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43.

[15] Giovanni Boccaccio, Life of Dante, trans. Philip H. Wicksteed, (Richmond: OneWorld Classics, 2009), 62.

[16] Mark Musa, introduction to The Divine Comedy, (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), 43.

[17] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy Volume 3: Paradise, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana Press University, 1984), XXXIII. 143-145.

[18] Robert Royal, “Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality,” in The Wilson Quarterly, (Washington, D.C.: Wilson Quarterly, 1999), 122.



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