Famous Italians

Dante Alighieri
Il Sommo Poeta - The Supreme Poet

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265.  Nobody is sure of the exact date of his birthday.  It could be that his real name was Durante, and Dante for short.

The family was noble and important in Florence.  His father was called Alighiero di Bellincione.  His mother was called Bella degli Abati and she died when Dante was only seven years old.  His father married again and two more children were born - a brother and sister for Dante.  They were called Francesco and Gaetana.

Dante was probably educated at home.  He loved the classical Latin poet Virgil.

In those times,  parents often arranged a marriage for their sons and daughters whilst they were still children.  When Dante was twelve years old, a wife was chosen for him and they became engaged.  She was called Gemma di Manetto Donati.

But Dante had already fallen in love with another girl!  When he was just nine years old, he had met Beatrice Portinari and it was love at first sight.  Nevertheless, he obeyed his parents' wishes and married the girl they had chosen for him.  Beatrice remained his idol and he adored her, admiring her beauty from afar.  Below is a painting by the artist Rossetti.  It portrays Beatrice.

Beatrice's beauty and the love Dante felt for her were the inspiration for the poetry he wrote in later years.  Dante did not write any poetry about his wife Gemma.

Two years after his marriage to Gemma, Beatrice married a banker.  Then, tragically, at the age of twenty-four, Beatrice died.  Dante was devastated and found comfort in studying philosophy.  Beatrice was laid to rest in a church in Florence called Santa Maria de' Cerchi.   (Below.)
Church of Beatrice

Dante and Gemma had at least five children - Jacopo, Pietro, Gabriele, Giovanni and Antonia.  Antonia became a nun.

During Dante's lifetime, Florence had political problems.  The two main parties were known as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  Eventually, the Guelphs divided into two separate parties known as the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs.  Dante belonged to the White Guelphs.  Unfortunately, the Black Guelphs gained power in Florence and Dante was forced to leave his city and to live in exile.

Extremely sad at being forced to live away from Florence, he began to write his most famous work - The Divine Comedy.  In Italian it is called La Divina Commedia.  Originally, it was just called La Commedia. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio added the word 'divina' to the title. 

La Divina Commedia is a book written in poetry. There is an introduction followed by three separate sections.   Each section contains thirty-three chapters.  Each chapter is called a 'canto.'  There is a total of one hundred canti (including the introduction.) 
The first section of thirty-three canti is called Inferno (meaning- Hell). 
The second is called Purgatorio (Purgatory). 
The third is called Paradiso (meaning - Heaven). 

In The Divine Comedy, there are characters who are significant in Dante's personal life, for example, Beatrice and the poet Virgil.  Dante himself is the narrator - a character who is thirty-five years old. 

The Divine Comedy is a very important piece of literature because it was the first book to be written in Italian rather than Latin or Greek.  In fact, it is said that the modern Italian language began with the writing of The Divine Comedy.  For this reason, Dante is also referred to as The Father of the Italian Language.

The opening verse of The Divine Comedy (from the first section called Inferno) is very famous.  It is this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Midway upon the journey of our life
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
I found myself within a forest dark,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

For the straightforward pathway had been lost

There are many famous quotes from La Divina Commedia.  One of the most famous quotes is the writing seen 'above the gates of Hell'.  It is this: 
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.  
It means- Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
(Canto III, line 9).

Dante died in exile in 1321, in the town of Ravenna after completion of The Divine Comedy.  He was fifty-six years old.  His tomb remains in Ravenna (photo below).
Tomb of Dante

Dante is in the unusual situation of having two tombs!  After his death, the people of Florence wished for him to be buried there in his home-town but his tomb remained in Ravenna.  So, centuries later, in 1829, the people of Florence built an empty tomb which can be seen in La Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. (Photo below.)  In the same church are to be found the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo.

The empty tomb can be seen below.  It bears the inscription 'Onorate l'altissimo poeta.'  This means 'Honour the great poet.'  These words were taken from a part of La Divina Commedia.  
So, the words on the tomb were written by Dante himself!

In paintings and statues of Dante, he is often wearing a laurel wreath on his head (as seen below.)  In Ancient Greece and Rome, the laurel leaves or bay leaves worn as a crown became the symbol of victory.  In Florence, during the time of Dante Alighieri, the laurel wreath came to represent a brilliant poet.  The term 'poet laureate' comes from this tradition.

Poet Dante
An interesting fact: the laurel wreath is worn by Italian university graduates as a crown on their graduation day!
The Italian word laurea = university degree.

The famous Italian composer of opera, Giacomo Puccini, wrote an opera called Gianni Schicchi.  This opera is based on the story of Canto XXX (number 30) from Inferno (Hell) of La Divina Commedia.
To hear an aria from the opera Gianni Schicchi click
HERE and go to Track 1 of Claudia's Italian Opera Jukebox.