Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Dante Alighieri
DANTE, ALIGHIERI (dän'tä ä-lē-gē-ā'rē), the greatest of Italian poets; born in Florence about the end of May, 1265, of a family belonging to the lower nobility. His education was confided to the learned Brunetto Latini. He is said also to have studied in various seats of learning. He seems to have been quite a boy, no more than 9 years of age, when he first saw Beatrice Portinari, and the love she awakened in him he has described in that record of his early years, the "New Life," as well as in his later great work, the "Divine Comedy." Their lives were spent far apart, Beatrice marrying a noble Florentine, Simone Bardi, in 1287, and dying three years afterward; while the year following Dante married Gemma dei Donati, by whom he had seven children.
At this time the Guelfic party in Florence became divided into the rival factions of Bianchi and Neri (Whites and Blacks), the latter being an extreme papal party, while the former leaned to reconciliation with the Ghibellines. Dante's sympathies were with the Bianchi, and being a prior of the trades and a leading citizen in Florence, he went on an embassy to Rome to influence the Pope on behalf of the Bianchi. The rival faction of the Neri, however, had got the upper hand in the city, and in the usual fashion of the time were burning the houses of their rivals and slaying them in the open street. In Dante's absence his enemies obtained a decree of
banishment against him, coupled with a heavy fine, a sentence which was soon followed by another condemning him to be burned alive for malversation and peculation. From this time the poet became, and to the end of his life remained, an exile. He has told us himself how he wandered "through almost all parts where this language is spoken," and how hard he felt it "to climb the stairs and eat the bitter bread of strangers." During this period he is said to have visited many cities, Arezzo, Bologna, Sienna, etc., and even Paris. In 1314 he found shelter with Can Grande della Scala at Verona, where he remained till 1318. In 1320 we find him staying at Ravenna with his friend Guido da Polenta. In September, 1321, his sufferings and wanderings were ended by death. He was buried at Ravenna, where his bones still lie.
His great poem, the "Divine Comedy," written in great part, if not altogether, during his exile, is divided into three parts, entitled "Hell," "Purgatory," and "Paradise." The poet dreams that he has wandered into a dusky forest, when the shade of Vergil appears and offers to conduct him through hell and purgatory. Farther the pagan poet may not go, but Beatrice herself shall lead him through paradise. The journey through hell is first described, and the imaginative power with which the distorted characters of the guilty and the punishments laid on them are brought before us; the impressive pathos of these short histories—often compressed in Dante's severe style into a couple of lines—of Pope and Ghibelline, Italian lord and lady; the passionate depth of characterization, the subtle insight and intense faith, make up a whole which for significance and completeness has perhaps no rival in the work of any one man. From hell the poet still in Vergil's company ascends to purgatory. There are scenes of surpassing beauty and grandeur when with Beatrice he enters the celestial paradise and they wander through the nine spheres.
There are English versions of the great poem by Cary, Longfellow, and Parsons-Norton (1891–1892). Dante's other works are: 'The Banquet," a series of philosophical commentaries on the author's canzoni; "The Canzon Writer's Art," a collection of poems; a Latin treatise, "Concerning Monarchy," a work intended to prove the supremacy of the head of the Holy Roman Empire, a treatise on the Italian language, entitled "On Popular Speech"; and an inquiry into the relative altitude of the water and the land, "Land and Water."