Dante Alighieri: A Poetic Descent into Metaphorical Hell

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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.

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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.


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