Dante (Alighieri) 1265 -- 1321

  The Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote The Divine Comedy, the greatest poetic composition of the Christian Middle Ages and the first masterpiece of world literature written in a modern European vernacular.

  Dante lived in a restless age of political conflict between popes and emperors and of strife within the Italian city-states, particularly Florence, which was torn between rival factions. Spiritually and culturally too, there were signs of change. With the diffusion of Aristotle's physical and metaphysical works, there came the need for harmonizing his philosophy with the truth of Christianity, and Dante's mind was attracted to philosophical speculation. In Italy, Giotto, who had freed himself from the Byzantine tradition, was reshaping the art of painting, while the Tuscan poets were beginning to experiment with new forms of expression. Dante may be considered the greatest and last medieval poet, at least in Italy, where barely a generation later the first humanists were to emerge.

  Dante was born in Florence, the son of Bellincione d'Alighiero. His family descended, he tells us, from "the noble seed" of the Roman founders of Florence and was noble also by virtue of honors bestowed on it later. His great-grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by Emperor Conrad III and died about 1147 while fighting in the Second Crusade. As was usual for the minor nobility, Dante's family was Guelph, in opposition to the Ghibelline party of the feudal nobility which strove to dominate the communes under the protection of the emperor.

  Although his family was reduced to modest circumstances, Dante was able to live as a gentleman and to pursue his studies. It is probable that he attended the Franciscan school of Sta Croce and the Dominican school of S. Maria Novella in Florence, where he gained the knowledge of Thomistic doctrine and of the mysticism that was to become the foundation of his philosophical culture. It is known from his own testimony that in order to perfect his literary style he also studied with Brunetto Latini, the Florentine poet and master of rhetoric. Perhaps encouraged by Brunetto in his pursuit of learning, Dante traveled to Bologna, where he probably attended the well-known schools of rhetoric.

  A famous portrait of the young Dante done by Giotto hangs in the Palazzo del Podest?in Florence. We also have the following description of him left us by the author Giovanni Boccaccio: "Our poet was of medium height, and his face was long and his nose aquiline and his jaws were big, and his lower lip stood out in such a way that it somewhat protruded beyond the upper one; his shoulders were somewhat curved, and his eyes large rather than small and of brown color, and his hair and beard were curled and black, and he was always melancholy and pensive." Dante does not write of his family or marriage, but before 1283 his father died, and soon afterward, in accordance with his father's previous arrangements, he married the gentlewoman Gemma di Manetto Donati. They had several children, of whom two sons, Jacopo and Pietro, and a daughter, Antonia, are known.