SOME COMMENTS ON DANTE’S LIFE AND TIMES

Dante: born May 30, 1265 -- died Sept. 13, 1321.

        On Dante’s life, see entry Dante Alighieri, in Glossary pp.316-317 of Dorothy Sayers’ trans. Inferno.  Here are some highlights --

                    KEY DATE: The Comedy is set in the Jubilee year 1300
                                                when Dante is age 35 --
                                    the supposed midpoint of his life. [1300 - 35 = 1265]

                        [However, Dante only lives an additional 21 years -- not the supposed 35.]

        Note that Dante’s "date of death" is easy to remember -- think 13 for the 1300’s and then count backwards 13-2-1. The Comedy was probably not completed until shortly before Dante’s death.

        The other date you need to know is that Beatrice died in the year 1290.

        We do not know exactly when Dante married Gemma Donati. In your Vita Nuova translation, in the chronology on p.121, the author gives the date as 1284? -- others put the date after B’s death -- in the early 1290’s. One complication is that Dante and Gemma were probably given to be married long before they were actually married. We know that they had at least three children -- Pietro, Jacopo and Beatrice. (Some say five) We know that Dante was exiled from the city of Florence in 1302 and that he was never to return to the city nor see his wife again. Late in his life, he was joined by his sons and daughter in exile.

Dante’s key works: La Vita Nuova (The New Life) --- composed a few years after B’s death

                                      IL Convivio (The Banquet) --- composed c. 1308 -- unfinished

                                      De Vugari Eloquentia --- also composed c. 1308
                                        (Of Writing in the Vulgar Tongue --i.e. Italian rather than Latin)

                                     De Monarchia  (Of Monarchy) --- composed c. 1311

                                    La Commedia --- may have been begun before Dante’s exile;
                                        certainly the Inferno was not completed before 1314;
                                        the Purgatorio probably soon after;
                                        the Paradiso not completed until a short time before D’s death.

                    Generally, think of the Comedy as written while Dante was in exile.

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        In Dante’s time there was no Italy as such. Rather there were a grouping of city-states. Rome and its surrounding territory were called the Papal States because under the rule of the Pope. Otherwise, think of present Italy as a patchwork quilt of larger and smaller city-states. Dante was a citizen of the Republic of Florence (Firenze in Italian).

        During most of Dante’s century there was a struggle between the Pope who favored small city-states and the German Emperor who dreamed of a unified new Roman Empire. The city-states were constantly allying themselves with Pope against Emperor or Emperor against Pope.

        The Party of the Pope was called the Guelfs.
        The Party of the Emperor was called the Ghibellines.

Not hard to remember. The word "Pope" is shorter than the word "Emperor." Likewise, the word "Guelfs" is shorter than the word "Ghibellines."

            Pope ---> Guelfs;                 Emperor ---> Ghibellines.

        Generally, the middle class families allied themselves with the Guelfs; the noble families with the Ghibellines. Thus, family and class conflict was a part of the mix. When one party gained the upper hand, they would often exile members of the opposition and sometimes confiscate their property. In Florence, first the Guelfs held power. Then the Emperor sent troops and exiled them. Later, there were allowed to return. To complicate matters, the Guelfs in Florence split into two sub-factions the White Guelfs and the Black Guelfs.

        Dante entered politics c. 1300 and he (as a White Guelf) was exiled from Florence in 1302, never to return. Thus, he spent practically the last 20 years of his life a wanderer, dependent on the hospitality of patrons and friends in such Italian cities as Verona and Ravenna.

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