Dante Alighieri and Florence (Portrait by Sandro Botticelli, private collection)

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Portrait by Sandro Botticelli, private collection)

Dante Alighieri and Florence politics

Dante Alighieri and Florence are deeply linked. Besides being the city where he was born, Florence is also the theatre of his education and literary work. Dante Alighieri was born in March (or perhaps June) 1265 in Florence. He belonged to a Guelph faction, the party in Medieval times which supported the power of the Pope over the Emperor (Ghibellines). He grew up during years of great economic growth and culture in Florence. When he was twenty he married Gemma di Manetto, who belonged to a secondary branch of a large noble family. They had four children—Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia. In 1295 he went into politics finding Pope Boniface VIII as opposition. The pope was supported by the Black Guelphs who represented the richest Florentine families. They accepted the Pope’s control over the state’s internal affairs. Dante, however, was part of the White Guelphs. They vindicated instead the independence of Florence from the Papal power.

The Exile of Dante

In 1301, just as Charles de Valois was arriving in Florence and the Black party (supported by the pope) was gaining the upper hand, Dante was called to Rome to Boniface VIII’s court. The political trial thus began. Dante, accused of corruption, was suspended from public office and sentenced to pay a heavy fine. Since Dante, just like his peers, didn’t lower himself to stand in front of the judges, he was sentenced to the confiscation of his assets. If he was found in the territory of Florence, he would be turned over to the executioner. So he was forced to leave his city aware that Boniface VIII had tricked him by holding him in Rome while the Blacks took power in Florence. This is how Boniface VIII gained an important place in the circles of “Inferno” in the “The Divine Comedy”. This was the end of the love between Dante Alighieri and Florence. He never forgave his city for having abandoned him. Dante died prematurely in Ravenna between September 13 and 14, 1321, probably due to a malarial fever contracted in Venice where he had been on a diplomatic mission.

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Fresco by Domenico di Michelino inside Florence Cathedral)

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Fresco by Domenico di Michelino inside Florence Cathedral)

However, it was during his exile that he began writing his great work The Divine Comedy. Dante chose the title because even though it begins tragically (Inferno), it ends pleasantly (Paradiso). Thereafter, it was defined as “Divine” by Boccaccio to highlight the work’s celestial inspiration and its theological nature. The work is an allegory and describes the divine voyage taken at Easter in 1300. Dante finds himself in a “dark woods” (period of personal misdirection) and is rescued by Virgil. Dante chose Virgil because he studied his works during his formative years. Virgil becomes his guide down to the infernal circles and the climb up Mount Purgatory. He’s then accompanied by Beatrice, always portrayed as an angelical figure, upon his arrival at the gates of Paradise. Saint Bernard guides him in the final part — the Empyrean. The voyage ends with God’s contemplation. The work is divided into 3 cantiche, subdivided into 33 canti each and an introduction. The recurrence of the number 3 is importance as it symbolizes the Trinity.