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Dante Alighieri

The Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) Italian author, poet of the Divine Comedy. 

Dante is probably medieval Italy’s pre-eminent poet, as well as an accomplished prose writer. His masterpiece, the Comedy, has had an enduring impact on the development of the language, literature, and culture of Italy.

  • 1. Biography

  • 2. Minor works

  • 3. Divine Comedy

1. Biography

Dante was born (1265) into the modest *Guelph Alighieri family of *Florence. His early education introduced him to the standard medieval and classical authors, but much of his remarkable range of literary, philosophical, and scientific interests was self-taught in later life. Dante married in 1285 and had three or possibly four children. In 1295, he entered the turbulent environment of Florentine politics, where he leant towards White Guelph policies but attempted to foster faction neutrality. He rose to serve as one of Florence’s ruling Priors in 1300. When the Black Guelph party seized power in 1302, he was sentenced in absentia, on probably manufactured corruption charges, to exile.

He initially associated with fellow White exiles but, by 1304, had formed a ‘party unto himself’ (Paradiso, 17.9), independently seeking *patronage in various Italian courts and cities. His political enthusiasms became fired for what he saw as the divinely appointed authority of the (Holy) *Roman Empire. He eagerly supported Emperor Henry VII, who entered Italy in 1310 to seek *coronation in *Rome and assertion of his authority within *Italy. Henry’s premature death (1313) ended Dante’s practical hopes, though not his enthusiasm, for a revival of imperial power in his lifetime. From 1312, he found support and patronage at *Verona, from Cangrande della *Scala. Around 1318 he moved to Guido Novello da Polenta’s court at *Ravenna, where he settled until his death on 13 September 1321.

2. Minor works

Dante began writing poetry c.1283. With his friend *Guido Cavalcanti, Dante played a leading part in developing a *dolce stil nuovo (‘sweet new style’; Purgatorio 24.57) in vernacular love poetry. Many early lyrics deal with his intense and spiritualized love for a certain Beatrice, traditionally identified as Beatrice Portinari. Her death (1290) prompted composition of the Vita nuova (1292/4), a collection of lyrics accompanied by prose *commentary. The Vita charts the progress of a love enduring beyond the grave and also of Dante’s poetic development, with the discovery of an innovative style appropriate to praising Beatrice as a ‘miracle’ (Vita, 26) of divine creation. Dante explored other poetic styles in lyric works ranging from a scurrilous tenzone exchange, to the harsh and complex rime petrose, and to serious intellectual canzoni on moral themes. He is widely accredited authorship of the anonymous Fiore (c.1286), a Tuscan rendition of the *Roman de la rose, and Detto d’Amore.

Around 1303/4, Dante embarked on two ambitious prose works. The Convivio uses vernacular commentaries on Dante’s own ethical canzoni to introduce discussions of moral philosophy. *De vulgari eloquentia, although composed in Latin, asserts the nobility of vernacular idioms, discusses linguistic history, and explores rules for poetic composition. Both texts were abandoned, unfinished, as Dante began the Comedy (c.1307). For the rest of his life, this poem absorbed his authorial energies, barring brief excursions into closely related topics. Several Latin Epistles express his political enthusiasms; similarly, the treatise Monarchia (after 1317) offers extended theoretical justifications for the *Roman Empire’s divinely sanctioned authority and for the necessity of the church’s absolute separation from the exercise of temporal power. The scientific Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320) discusses the distribution of landmass and water on the globe. Two Latin Egloge (1319–20), addressed to Giovanni del Virgilio, offer a spirited defence of Dante’s decision to compose the Comedy in the vernacular.

3. Divine Comedy

Consciously conceived as Dante’s magnum opus, the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) has achieved enduring fame as a masterpiece of world literature. The epithet ‘divine’, incorporated into the poem’s title since the 16th century, indicates both its theological subject-matter and its outstanding poetic achievement. Dante’s own title, simply Commedia, signals its linguistic and stylistic experimentalism, though the poem challenges many medieval ‘comic’ genre rules. The poem’s three cantiche (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) are divided into 100 canti. They explore both the highest and lowest extremes of God’s creation in narrating a journey through the afterworld (hell, purgatory, and paradise) purportedly undertaken by Dante, both protagonist and narrator of the poem. Two guides oversee the Dante-character’s journey: the poet Virgil leads him through hell and purgatory, and Dante’s beloved, the Vita nuova’s Beatrice, through the heavens to the closing vision of God.

The afterworld is conceived with impressive realism: hell is a subterranean pit (with strong echoes of Virgil’s Hades), purgatory a mountain in earth’s southern hemisphere, and heaven is reached via the spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos. On his voyage, the Dante-protagonist encounters numerous individual characters, drawn from contemporary Italian history, the Bible, and the classics. His exchanges with these figures offer penetrating insights into how the poet Dante conceives divine justice to function, as do the descriptions of their forms of punishment, *penance, or reward. The Dante-character’s unfolding engagement with these concrete personal histories effects a spiritual conversion away from the allegorical ‘Dark Wood’ of confusion with which the poem opens. The experience is explicitly exemplary, and the ‘sacred poem’ (Paradiso, 25.1) is intended equally to convert its readers. For this reason, the narrative never becomes abstracted from earthly concerns. The Divine Comedy maintains sustained engagements with social and political issues as well as individual redemption and urges a revival of moral and theological values that might replicate on earth the order of God’s heavenly Jerusalem, movingly described at the end of the Paradiso. See also heaven; hell; purgatory.

Catherine Keen


D. Alighieri, La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, ed. G. Petrocchi, 4 vols (1966–7).Find this resource:

—— Opere minori, ed. D. De Robertis et al., 2 vols (1979–88).Find this resource:

E. Auerbach, Dante, Poet of the Secular World, tr. R. Manheim (German original, 1929) (1961).Find this resource:

Z. G. Barański, Dante e i segni (2000).Find this resource:

M. Barbi, Problemi di critica dantesca, 2 vols (1941).Find this resource:

T. Barolini, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (1992).Find this resource:

P. Boyde, Dante, Philomythes and Philosopher (1981).Find this resource:

S. Bemrose, A New Life of Dante (2000).Find this resource:

G. Contini, Un’idea di Dante (1976).Find this resource:

C. T. Davis, Dante and the Idea of Rome (1957).Find this resource:

K. Foster, The Two Dantes and Other Studies (1977).Find this resource:

E. Gilson, Dante the Philosopher, tr. D. Moore (French original, 1939) (1948).Find this resource:

R. Hollander, Allegory in Dante’s Commedia (1969).Find this resource:

R. Jacoff, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dante (1993).Find this resource:

G. Mazotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert: History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy (1979).Find this resource:

B. Nardi, Nel mondo di Dante (1944).Find this resource:

C. S. Singleton, Dante Studies 1: Commedia, Elements of Structure (1954).Find this resource:

—— Dante Studies 2: Journey to Beatrice (1958).Find this resource:

J. F. Took, Dante, Lyric Poet and Philosopher: An Introduction to the Minor Works (1990).Find this resource: