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  • Dante Alighieri

    May/June c.1265 - September 14, 1321
    Part 1 of 13: Introduction

    Dante (or Durante) Alighieri (1265-1321), the greatest of Italian poets, was born at Florence about the middle of May 1265. He was descended from an ancient family, but from one which at any rate for several generations had belonged to the burgher and not to the knightly class. His biographers have attempted on very slight grounds to deduce his origin from the Frangipani, one of the oldest senatorial families of Rome. We can affirm with greater certainty that he was connected with the Elisei who took part in the building of Florence under Charles the Great. Dante himself does not, with the exception of a few obscure and scattered allusions, carry his ancestry beyond the warrior Cacciaguida, whom he met in the sphere of Mars (Par. xv. 87, foll.). Of Cacciaguida's family nothing is known. The name, as he told Dante (Par. xv. 139, 5), was given him at his baptism; it has a Teutonic ring. The family may well have sprung from one of the barons who, as Villani tells us, remained behind Otto I. It has been noted that the phrase "Tonde venner quivi" (xvi. 44) seems to imply that they were not Florentines. He further tells his descendant that he was born in the year 1106 (or, if another reading of xvi, 37, 38 be adopted, in 1091), and that he married an Aldighieri from the valley of the Po. Here the German strain appears unmistakably; the name Aldighiero (Aldiger) being purely Teutonic. He also mentions two brothers, Moronte and Eliseo, and that he accompanied the emperor Conrad III. upon his crusade into the Holy Land, where he died (1147) among the infidels. From Eliseo was probably descended the branch of the Elisei; from Aldighiero, son of Cacciaguida, the branch of the Alighieri. Bellincione, son of Aldighiero, was the grandfather of Dante. His father was a second Aldighiero, a lawyer of some reputation. By his first wife, Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffii, this Aldighiero had a son Francesco; by his second, Donna Bella, whose family name is not known, Dante and a daughter. Thus the family of Dante held a most respectable position among the citizens of his beloved city; but had it been reckoned in the very first rank they could not have remained in Florence after the defeat of the Guelphs at Montaperti in 1260. It is clear, however, that Dante's mother at least did so remain, for Dante was born in Florence in 1265. The heads of the Guelph party did not return till 1267.

    Dante was born under the sign of the twins, "the glorious stars pregnant with virtue, to whom he owes his genius such as it is." Astrologers considered this constellation as favourable to literature and science, and Brunetto Latini, the philosopher and diplomatist, his instructor, tells him in the Inferno (xv. 25, foll.) that, if he follows its guidance, he cannot fail to reach the harbour of fame. Boccaccio relates that before his birth his mother dreamed that she lay under a very lofty laurel, growing in a green meadow, by a very clear fountain, when she felt the pangs of childbirth, - that her child, feeding on the berries which fell from the laurel, and on the waters of the fountain, in a very short time became a shepherd, and attempted to reach the leaves of the laurel, the fruit of which had nurtured him, - that, trying to obtain them he fell, and rose up, no longer a man, but in the guise of a peacock. We know little of Dante's boyhood except that he was a hard student and was profoundly influenced by Brunetto Latini. Boccaccio tells us that he became very familiar with Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Statius, and all other famous poets. From the age of eighteen he, like most cultivated young men of that age, wrote poetry assiduously, in the philosophical amatory style of which his friend, older by many years than himself, Guido Cavalcanti, was a great exponent, and of which Dante regarded Guido Guinicelli of Bologna as the master (Purg. xxvi. 97, 8). Leonardo Bruni of Arezzo, writing a hundred years or more after his death, says that "by study of philosophy, of theology, astrology, arithmetic and geometry, by reading of history, by the turning over many curious books, watching and sweating in his studies, he acquired the science which he was to adorn and explain in his verses." Of Brunetto Latini Dante himself speaks with the most loving gratitude and affection, though he does not hesitate to brand his vices with infamy. Under such guidance Dante became master of all the science of his age at a time when it was not impossible to know all that could be known. He had some knowledge of drawing; at any rate he tells us that on the anniversary of the death of Beatrice he drew an angel on a tablet. He was an intimate friend of Giotto, who has immortalized his youthful lineaments in the chapel of the Bargello, and who is recorded to have drawn from his friend's inspiration the allegories of Virtue and Vice which fringe the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua. Nor was he less sensible to the delights of music. Milton had not a keener ear for the loud uplifted angel trumpets and the immortal harps of golden wires of the cherubim and seraphim; and the English poet was proud to compare his own friendship with Henry Lawes with that between Dante and Casella, "met in the milder shades of purgatory." Of his companions the most intimate and sympathetic were the lawyer-poet Cino of Pistoia, Lapo Gianni, Guido Cavalcanti and others, similarly gifted and dowered with like tastes, who moved in the lively and acute society of Florence, and felt with him the first warm flush of the new spirit which was soon to pass over Europe. He has written no sweeter or more melodious lines than those in which he expresses the wish that he, with Guido and Lapo, might be wafted by enchantment over the sea wheresoever they might list, shielded from tempest and foul weather, in such contentment that they should wish to live always in one mind, and that the good enchanter should bring Monna Vanna and Monna Bice and that other lady into their barque, where they should for ever discourse of love and be for ever happy. It is a wonderful thing (says Leonardo Bruni) that, though he studied without intermission, it would not have appeared to anyone that he studied, from his joyous mien and youthful conversation. Like Milton he was trained in the strictest academical education which the age afforded, but Dante lived under a warmer sun and brighter skies, and found in the rich variety and gaiety of his early life a defence against the withering misfortunes of his later years. Milton felt too early the chill breath of Puritanism, and the serious musing on the experience of life, which saddened the verse of both poets, deepened in his case rather into grave and desponding melancholy, than into the fierce scorn and invective which disillusion wrung from Dante.

    Part 2: Political Life, Part 1


    In this biography:
    Part 1: Introduction
    Part 2: Political Life, Part 1
    Part 3: Political Life, Part 2
    Part 4: Dante's Ghibellinism
    Part 5: Wanderings
    Part 6: Old Age and Death
    Part 7: Divina Commedia
    Part 8: Convito, Vita Nuova & Canzoniere
    Part 9: De Monarchia & De Vulgari Eloquentia
    Part 10: Eclogues, De Aqua et Terra & Letters
    Part 11: Authorities, Editions & Commentaries
    Part 12: Translations, Other Aids & Bibliography
    Part 13: Related Articles, Sites, etc.


    This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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