Dante Alighieri

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Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (dănˈtē, Ital. dänˈtā älēgyĕˈrē), 1265–1321, Italian poet, b. Florence. Dante was the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the greatest of literary classics.


Born into a Guelph family (see Guelphs and Ghibellines) of decayed nobility, Dante moved in patrician society. He was a member of the Florentine cavalry that routed the Ghibellines at Campaldino in 1289. The next year, after the death (1290) of Beatrice, the woman he loved, he plunged into intense study of classical philosophy and Provençal poetry. This woman, thought to have been Beatrice Portinari, was Dante's acknowledged source of spiritual inspiration.

Dante married Gemma Donati, had three children, and was active (1295–1300) as councilman, elector, and prior of Florence. In the complex politics of Florence, he found himself increasingly opposed to the temporal power of Pope Boniface VIII, and he eventually allied himself with the White Guelphs. After the victory of the Black Guelphs he was dispossessed and banished (1302). Exile made Dante a citizen of all Italy; he served various princes, but supported Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII as the potential savior of a united Italy. He died at the court of Guido da Polenta in Ravenna, where he is buried.


Dante's reputation as the outstanding figure of Italian letters rests mainly on the Divine Comedy, a long vernacular poem in 100 cantos (more than 14,000 lines) composed during his exile. Dante entitled it Commedia; the adjective Divina was added in the 16th cent. It recounts the tale of the poet's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and is divided accordingly into three parts. In Hell and Purgatory Dante is guided by Vergil, through Heaven, by Beatrice, for whom the poem is a memorial. The work is written in terza rima, a complex verse form in pentameter, with interlocking triads rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc.

A magnificent synthesis of the medieval outlook, the Divine Comedy pictures a changeless universe ordered by God; its allegorical theme is the gradual revelation of God to the pilgrim. It is also a religious dialogue on the gradations of earthly sin and piety as well as on such topics as predestination and classical philosophy. The symbolism is complex yet highly rational; the verse is musical; and the entire work is one of great imagination. Through his masterpiece Dante established Tuscan as the literary language of Italy, surpassed all previous Italian writers, and gave rise to a vast literature.

Dante's works also include La vita nuova [the new life] (written c.1292), a collection of prose and lyrics celebrating Beatrice and illustrating his idealistic concept of love; the Convivio (c.1304), an encyclopedic allegory praising both love and science; De monarchia, a treatise on the need for kingly dominance in secular affairs; and De vulgare eloquentia, on rules for the Italian vernacular. In addition, he wrote numerous lyrics, eclogues, and epistles.


There are numerous translations of the Divine Comedy, including those by M. B. Anderson (1921), J. D. Sinclair (3 vol., 1939–46), D. Sayers (3 vol., 1963), R. Pinsky (of the Inferno, 1994), R. M. Durling (Vol. I–III, 1996–2013), R. and J. Hollander (3 vol., 2000–2007), M. J. Bang (of the Inferno, 2013), and C. James (2013). See biographies by M. Barbi (tr. 1954), P. J. Toynbee (ed. by C. S. Singleton, 1965), and R. W. B. Lewis (2001); studies by J. A. Symonds (1899, repr. 1973), B. Croce (1922, repr. 1973), C. S. Singleton (1954 and 1958), E. Auerbach (tr. 1961), T. G. Bergin (1967 and 1969), W. Anderson (1989), and M. Caesar (1989); K. Foster and P. Boyde, ed., Cambridge Readings in Dante's Comedy (1982); P. Shaw, Reading Dante (2014).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dante Alighieri


Born May 1265, in Florence; died Sept. 14, 1321, in Ravenna. Italian poet.

Dante was descended from an ancient noble family. In the most well-known poems of his youth, Dante, influenced by Provençal troubadours, Sicilian poets, and the “dolce stil nuovo” school, glorified the young woman Beatrice and mourned her death (1290). These poems and the prose narrative in Italian that was included with them made up the first novelistic autobiography in Western European literature— The New Life (1292), which combines a mystical transformation of reality with deep psychological penetration of living feeling.

Dante actively participated in the public life of Florence, joining the White Guelf party, which basically represented commercial and artisan circles. After the victory of the Black Guelfs (the party of the urban nobility). Dante was sentenced in absentia to be burned at the stake, and his property was to be confiscated (1302). Later, he left the Whites and became, in his words, “his own party.” The poet then began his wanderings through Italy. He was sentenced to death a second time in 1315. (This sentence was not revoked until 1966!) Dante spent the last six years of his life in Ravenna.

During 1304–07, Dante wrote the treatises On Popular Speech, composed in Latin, and The Banquet, which included three canzones that had been written earlier and which represented the first example of philosophical prose in vernacular Italian. The exposition of questions of morality and theology and studies of the characteristics of the soul and intellect are disturbed by a lyric element—passionate tirades that are not characteristic of the treatise genre. In the work On Popular Speech Dante wrote about the kinship of the Romance languages and about the Italian dialects.

For a number of reasons, Dante placed his hopes on the German emperor Henry VII, who entered Italy with his troops in 1310. The poet’s decision was influenced by the internecine struggle in Florence and the wars among Italian cities, the intrigues of the papal curia, the decline in the moral authority of the church, his personal experience as an exile who was forced to wander through almost the entire country, and his realization of the unity of the Italian nation. Dante saw in Henry a peacemaker and an heir of the Roman Empire who was destined to revitalize Italy. During 1310–11 the poet wrote three letters in Latin supporting Henry. In the political treatise On Monarchy (1312–13), which was written in Latin, Dante defended the ideal of universal monarchy as a state that must secure the earthly well-being of the people.

The summit of Dante’s creative work is the narrative poem The Comedy, which future generations called The Divine Comedy. (Apparently begun in 1307, the work was completed in 1321, and the first printed edition appeared in 1472.) The form of the poem goes back to the traditional genre of a vision. It depicts the journey of the poet through the world beyond the grave, and it consists of three parts: The Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Guided by Vergil (the symbol of earthly reason), the hero of the poem—Dante himself, who embodies sinful humanity—descends to the inferno (the world of the condemned), which is an underground chasm subdivided into nine circles. He then ascends the mountain of purgatory (the world of atonement). He is cleansed of his sins, and accompanied by Beatrice (the symbol of divine reason), he then ascends to paradise (the world of bliss and the knowledge of absolute truth). In the later cantos of Paradise, Beatrice is succeeded by Dante’s third guide—Bernard of Clairvaux, a 13th-century theologian and mystic.

The transitional character of Dante’s creative work is clearly revealed in The Comedy. The allegorical picture of a motionless world beyond the grave, which is subject to the concepts of Catholic theology, links the poem with the Middle Ages. However, in the resolution of the enormous complex of problems of theology, history, science, and especially politics and morals, which are touched on in the poem. Catholic dogmas clash with the new attitudes toward people and the world and toward poetry and its cult of antiquity. Dante’s interest in the life of this world and the fate of the human personality was the basis of his humanism. He gave a political and social color to abstract sins. The poet was agitated by the fate of Italy and Florence, which were torn apart by civil strife, by corruption and the decline in the authority of the church, by the clash of papal and imperial authority, and by the ideal of monarchy. In The Comedy Dante places sinners in hell according to his own judgment. Sometimes he punishes them, but not in the way demanded by the church, and often he relates to them with deep compassion and respect.

Where Dante expounds on scholastic subtleties (especially in the third part), the poem acquires an abstract character. However, as a whole, The Comedy is closely bound to reality, and it reflects its time and re-creates the mood and character of the poet’s contemporaries. The most fluid images of unrepentant sinners in the Inferno are tragic figures, who have not overcome their passions: Francesca. Farinata, Ulysses, and Ugolino. The poetry of Purgatory is devoted to a lyric portrayal of human feelings: the sorrows of an exile, friendships, joys, and repentance. In Paradise abstract philosophical concepts are poeticized, as well as the personal experiences of the poet-exile, longing for his homeland. Among the characters special places are occupied by the wise and indulgent Vergil and the majestic and tender Beatrice. who are both symbols and living human characters. Dante himself holds a special place in the work as a proud, passionate, and intolerant man who is, at the same time, sensitive to people’s sufferings. He appears in the poem either as an individual or as a representative of humanity as a whole.

Dante was the creator of the Italian literary language. He based it on the Tuscan dialect, which he enriched with words and phrases from other dialects, as well as with Latinisms and neologisms. The style of The Comedy combines popular speech with solemn, learned vocabulary, the picturesque with dramatic qualities. Unlike anyone of his time, Dante spoke in the name of the entire Italian nation, expressing its historical aspirations. According to Engels’ definition, he was “the last poet of the Middle Ages and, at the same time, the first poet of the new age” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 382). Dante’s creative work had an enormous influence on the development of Italian literature and European culture as a whole. A vast literature has been devoted to his life and work. In the USSR in 1966 a permanently functioning Dante Commission was created under the Scientific Council for the History of World Culture of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.


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In Russian translation:
Bozhestvennaia komediia
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Malye proizvedeniia. Translated by I. Golenishchev-Kutuzov, V. Zubov, F. Petrovskii, E. Solonovich, and A. Gabrichevskii. Moscow. 1968.
Novaia zhizn’. Translated by A. Efros. Moscow, 1965.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.