Regarded as one of the finest poets that Italy has ever produced, Dante Alighieri is also celebrated as a major influence in Western culture. His masterpiece, the epic poem Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is universally known as one of the great poems of world literature. Divided into three sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—The Divine Comedy presents an encyclopedic overview of the mores, attitudes, beliefs, philosophies, aspirations, and material aspects of the medieval world. More than a summa of medieval life, however, Dante's epic is a superb work of fiction with poignant dramatic episodes and unforgettable characters drawn from real life. Dante's verse collection entitled Vita Nuova (The New Life), though not of the stature of The Divine Comedy, is well known for its exaltation of Beatrice, an idealized figure who inspired love poetry imbued with a fervent religious undertone.
Dante was born in Florence in 1265. Little is known about his early education, but scholars surmise that he received formal instruction in grammar, language, and philosophy at one of the Franciscan schools in the city. At the age of nine he purportedly glimpsed an eight-year-old girl named Beatrice, and struck by her beauty, he fell in love. Nine years later he saw her again, and when she greeted him, his love was confirmed. (Whether Beatrice really existed and whether her factual existence matters have been topics of some debate; she is generally identified as Beatrice Portinari.) During his teens, Dante demonstrated a keen interest in literature and undertook an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a celebrated poet and prose writer of vernacular Italian, who expanded Dante's knowledge of literature and rhetoric. Associating with a circle of respected Florentine poets, Dante befriended Guido Cavalcanti, who helped Dante refine his literary skills. In 1283 Dante inherited a modest family fortune from his parents, both of whom died during his childhood but took care to pre-arrange his marriage to Gemma Donati in 1285. In 1287 Dante enrolled in the University of Bologna, but by 1289 he enlisted in the Florentine army and took part in the Battle of Campaldino.
The death of Beatrice Portinari in 1290 proved to be a turning point in Dante's life, ultimately inspiring his Christian devotion and poetry, most notably as the ideal lady who leads him to redemption in The Divine Comedy. Stricken with grief, he committed himself to the study of philosophical works of Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle, and earnestly wrote poetry, establishing his own poetic voice in innovative canzoni, or lyrical poems. Dante also became increasingly active in perilous Florentine politics, aligning himself with the White Guelfs. The Black Guelfs, supported by papal forces, staged a coup in 1301 and established themselves as absolute rulers. Prominent White Guelfss, including Dante, were stripped of their possessions and banished from the city. Dante never returned, spending his remaining years in exile in Verona and later in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.
Written in commemoration of Beatrice's death, Vita Nuova (The New Life) reflects Dante's first effort to depict her as an abstract model of love and beauty. In this collection of early canzoni, Dante uses a refreshing and innovative approach, or dulce stil nuovo (sweet new style), in love poetry that equates the love experience with a divine and mystical spiritual revelation. Convivo (The Banquet), is another collection of canzoni, accompanied by extensive prose commentary, that further develops the poet's use of the stil nuovo. An unfinished Latin tract, De Vulgari Eloquentia (Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue) is a theoretical discussion of the origin of Italian dialects and literary language and examines how they relate to the composition of vernacular poetry; and De Monorchia (On Monarchy), a Latin treatise, presents the poet's Christian political philosophy.
The Divine Comedy describes Dante's imagined journey through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven. The Inferno, the most popular and widely studied section of The Divine Comedy, recounts Dante's travels through the different regions of Hell, led by his mentor and protector, the Roman poet Virgil. Constructed as a huge funnel with nine descending circular ledges, Dante's Hell features a vast, meticulously organized torture chamber in which sinners, carefully classified according to the nature of their sins, suffer hideous punishment, often depicted with ghoulish attention to detail. Those who recognize and repudiate their sins are given the opportunity to attain Paradise through the arduous process of purification, which continues in the Purgatorio. A shift from human reason to divine revelation takes place in Purgatory, a place where penitents awaiting the final journey to Paradise continually reaffirm their faith and atone for the sins they committed on earth. A mood of brotherly love, modesty, and longing for God prevails in Purgatory. Although in Hell, Virgil—a symbol of human reason—helps Dante understand sin, in Purgatory the poet needs a more powerful guide who represents faith: Beatrice. Finally, the Paradiso manifests the process of spiritual regeneration and purification required to meet God, who rewards the poet with perfect knowledge.
Although Dante's Commedia (The Divine Comedy) caused an immediate sensation during his life, his fame waned during the Italian Renaissance, only to be revived in the 19th and, especially, 20th centuries. Many scholars have examined the structural unity of the poem, discussing the interrelationship between medieval symbolism and allegory within the different parts of the poem and exploring Dante's narrative strategy. Others have marvelled at the seemingly inexhaustible formal and semantic richness of Dante's poetic text. With its various enigmatic layers of philological and philosophical complexities, The Divine Comedy has received scrutiny by critics, literary theorists, linguists, and philosophers, who have cherished the immortal work precisely because it translates the harsh truth about the human condition into poetry of timeless beauty. Vita Nuova (The New Life) has long basked in the reflected glory of The Divine Comedy. Criticism has almost invariably been positive, although an occasional scholar has taken exception to its sensibility, finding in it an overwrought imagination and sensitivity unbecoming a great poet. Many commentators have proposed that Beatrice is a symbol, although of what there is no consensus. The story of Dante's love for her is often taken as allegory, particularly by critics reading the book in the light of his later works.
- Vita Nuova [New Life], c. 1292.
- Convivio [The Banquet], c. 1304.
- Commedia [The Divine Comedy], c. 1307-21.
- De Vulgari Eloquentia [Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue], c. 1304.
- De Monorchia [On the Monarchy], c. 1309.
- Epistolae [Letters], c. 1313.