Dante, Alighieri

, an illustrious Italian poet, descended from one of the first families of Florence, of the name of Caccia Guida. Alighieri was the surname of the maternal line, natives of Ferrara, so called from a golden wing which the family bore on their arms. He was born in 1265, a little after the return of the Guelfs or pope’s faction, who had been exiled from their native country in consequence of the defeat at Monte Aperte. The superiority of his genius appeared early, and if we may credit his biographer Boccaccio, his amorous disposition appeared almost as soon. His passion for the lady whom he has celebrated in his poem by the name of Beatrice, is said to have commenced at nine years of age. She was the daughter of Eoleo Portinari, a noble citizen of Florence. | His passion seems to have been of the platonic kind, according to the account he gives of it in his “Vita Nuova,” one of his earliest productions. The lady died at the age of twenty-six and Dante, affected by the afflicting event, fell into a profound melancholy, to cure which his friends recommended matrimony. Dante took their advice, but was unfortunate in choosing a lady of a termagant temper, from whom he found it necessary to separate, but not until they had lived miserably for a considerable time, during which she bore him several children. Either at this period, or after the death of his first mistress, he seems by his own account to have fallen into a profligate course of life, from which he was rescued by the prayers of his mistress, now a saint, who prevailed on the spirit of Virgil to attend him through the infernal regions. It is not easy to reduce this account to matter of fact, nor is it very clear indeed whether his reigning vice was profligacy, or ambition of worldly honours. It is certain, however, that he possessed this ambition, and had reason to repent of it.

He had already conceived notions of military glory, and had distinguished himself by his bravery in an action where the Florentines obtained a signal victory at Arezzo. This, joined with his acknowledged learning, prepared the way for his advancement to the first honours of the state. Italy, at that time, was distracted between the factions of the Guelfs, or partizans of the pope, and the Ghibellines, who adhered to the emperor. After many revolutions, the Gnelfs had got the superiority in Florence; and in 130O Dante, with several colleagues, was elected prior, the first executive office in the republic of Florence, and from this he is said to have dated all his misfortunes. Although the faction of the Ghibellines seemed totally extinct, an uninterrupted flow of ten years prosperity was attended with consequences more fatal to the Guelfs than all their past misfortunes. The two noble families of the Cherchi and Donati had been engaged in a quarrel of old standing, and now had recourse to arms, in consequence of a dispute between two branches of the family of Cancelieri, of Pistoia. The rival factions had distinguished themselves by the names of the blacks and the whites, i. e. the Neri and the Bianchi. Donati, from an old attachment to the part of the Cancelieri, called the blacks, joined their faction, which immediately determined the Cherchi to join the whites; and in order to put an end to the quarrel, Dante and his | colleagues, ordered the heads of the opposite factions t remove from Pistoia to Florence, the consequence of which was, that all the noble families of Florence ranged themselves with the one or the other, and even the lower order of the citizens became partizans. At last, at a secret meeting of the blacks, Carso Donati proposed to apply to pope Boniface VIII. to terminate these intestine broils, by sending Charles of Valois of the blood royal of France. The whites, having learned this, assembled in arms, and clamoured loudly against the project, and Dante was so dissatisfied with it, that from that moment it is probable he took a decided part against the black faction.

To preserve, however, the appearance of impartiality, he and his colleagues, gaining the multitude on their side, ordered the leaders of both parties, Donati and Cherchi, into confinement; but Dante’s real sentiments soon appeared: the whites were set at liberty, and the blacks remained in bonds or in exile, and although Dante’s priorate had expired before the whites were released, the measure was attributed to his influence. This appearance of partiality gave the wished for pretext to Boniface to send Charles of Valois to Florence, who, after producing a letter pretended to be written by some of the leaders of the whites, offering to corrupt his integrity in their favour, recalled the exiles of the black faction, and banished their opponents. Dante was at this time at Rome soliciting the pope to conciliate the two parties, and finding his solicitations in vain, returned, and found the sentence of exile passed upon him, his possessions confiscated, and his house razed to the foundation. This news met him at Siena, where he was soon joined by a numerous body of exiles, who formed themselves into an army, and after makingsome unsuccessful efforts to enter their native city byforce, which they repeated for four years, were obliged tu disperse.

Dante first found a patron in the great Cane de la Scala, prince of Verona, whom he has celebrated in the first canto of the Inferno; but his high spirit was ill-suited to courtly dependance; and it is very probable he lost the favour of the prince by the frankness of his behaviour. Of this an instance is given in several authors. The disposition of the poet, in the latter part of his life, had acquired a strong tincture of melancholy, which made him less acceptable in the gay court of Verona, where probably | a poet was only thought a character fit to find frivolous amusements for his patron. A common jester, or buffoon (a noted personage in those days), eclipsed the character of the hard, and neither the variety of his learning, nor the sublimity of his genius, stood him in any stead. Cane, the prince, perceived that he was hurt by it; and, instead of altering his mode of treatment, very ungenerously exasperated his resentment, by observing one day in public company, that it was very extraordinary, that the jester, whom every one knew to be a worthless fellow, should be so much admired by him, and all his court; while Dante, a man unparalleled in learning, genius, and integrity, was universally neglected. “You will cease to wonder (says Dante), when you consider that similarity of manners is the strongest bond of attachment.” It does not appear whether the prince resented this answer, which he surely must have felt; but it is certain that the prince endeavoured to make the poet an occasional object of merriment in some very low instances, and Dante condescended to meet him even in that humble species of wit. Dante, however, soon found it necessary to seek his fortune elsewhere, and from Verona he retired to France, according to Manetti; and Boccaccio affirms that he disputed in the theological schools of Paris with great reputation, which Boccaccio had a much better opportunity of knowing than Bavle, who takes upon him to question the fact.

Dante’s first prospect of better fortune opened in 1308, when Henry, count of Luxemburgh was raised to the empire. In hopes of being restored to his native country, he attached himself to the interests of the new emperor, in whose service he is supposed to have written his Latin work “De Monarchia,” in which he asserts the rights of the empire against the encroachments of the papacy. In 131 J, he instigated the emperor to lay siege to Florence, in which enterprize, says one of his biographers, he did not chuse to appear in person, from motives of respect to his native country. But the emperor was repulsed by the Florentines; and his death, which happened next year, deprived Dante of all hopes of re-establishment in his native country. After this disappointment he is supposed to have spent several years in roving about Italy, in a state of poverty and dependance; till he found an honourable establishment at Ravenna, by the friendship of Guido NoVelio de Polenta, lord of that place, who received tbl? | illustrious exile with the most endearing liberality, continued to protect him during the few remaining years of his life, and extended his munificence even to the ashes of the poet.

Eloquence was one of the many talents which Dante possessed in an eminent degree; on this account he is said to have been employed in fourteen different embassies during the course of his life, and to have succeeded in most of them. His patron Guido had occasion to try his abilities in a service of this nature, and dispatched him as his ambassador, to negociate a peace with the Venetians, who were preparing for hostilities against Ravenna. Manetti asserts that he was unable to procure a public audience at Venice, and returned to Ravenna by land, from his apprehension of the Venetian fleet. But the fatigue of his journey, and the mortification of having failed in his attempt to preserve his generous patron from the impending danger, threw him into a fever, which terminated in death. He died Sept. 14, 1321, in the palace of Guido, who paid the most tender regard to his memory. This magnificent patron, says Boccaccio, commanded the body to be adorned with poetical ornaments; and alter being carried on a bier through the principal streets of Ravenna, by the most illustrious citizens, to be deposited in a marble coffin. He pronounced himself the funeral oration, and expressed his design of erecting a most splendid monument, in honour of the deceased; a design, which his subsequent misfortunes rendered him unable to accomplish. At his request, however, many epitaphs were written on the poet. The best of them, says Boccaccio, was by Giovanni di Virgilio, of Bologna, a famous author of the time, and the intimate friend of Dante. Bernardo Bembc, the father of the celebrated cardinal, raised a handsome monument over the neglected ashes of the poet, with a Latin inscription; but before this, the Florentines had vainly endeavoured to gain the bones of their great poet from the city of Ravenna. In the age of Leo X. they made a second attempt, by a solemn application to the pope for that purpose; and Michael AngeJo, an enthusiastic admirer of Dante, very liberally offered to execute a magnificent monument to the poet, but the hopes of the Florentines were again unsuccessful.

Dante is described by Boccaccio, as a man of middle stature j his demeanour was solemn, and his walk slow; | his dress suitable to his age and rank; his visage long, his nose aquiline, his eyes full, his cheek bones large, and upper lip a little projecting over the under one; his complexion was olive, his hair and beard thick and curled. This gave him that singularity of aspect, which made his enemies observe, that he looked like one who had visited the infernal regions. His deportment, both in public and private life, was regular and exemplary, and his moderation in eating and drinking remarkable.

His fame rests on his “Divina Commedia,” unquestionably a great and singular, but very unequal work. At what time, or in what place, he wrote it, his numerous commentators seem unable to determine. The life of Dante, in which we have principally followed Mr. Boyd, in the preliminary matter to his excellent translation, is after all not the life of a poet, nqr does it furnish the information we naturally look for in order to enable us to trace the progress of genius. Boccaccio asserts, that he began the “Commedia” in his thirty-eighth year, and had finished seven cantos of his “Inferno” before his exile, and that in the plunder of his house, on that event, the beginning of his poem was fortunately preserved, but remained for some time neglected, till, its merit being accidentally discovered by an intelligent poet, Dino, it was sent to the marquis Marcello Marespina, an Italian nobleman, by whom Dante was then protected. The marquis restored these lost papers to the poet, and intreated him to proceed in the work, which opened in so promising a manner. To this accident we are probably indebted for the poem of Dante, which he must have continued under all the disadvantages of an unfortunate and agitated life. It does not appear at what time he completed it: perhaps before he quitted Verona, as he dedicated the “Paradeso” to his Veronese patron. The critics are not agreed why he called this poem “Commedia.

The very high estimation in which this work was held in, Florence appears from a very singular institution. The republic of Florence, in 1373, assigned a public stipend to a person appointed to read lectures on the poem of Dante. Boccaccio was the first person engaged in this office; but his death happening two years after his appointment, his comment extended only to the first seventeen cantos of the “Inferno.” Another very terrible instance of their veneration for their native bard is told by | the author of the “Memoires de Petrarque.” Ceno de Ascoli, a celebrated physician and astrologer, had the boldness to write parodies on the poem of Dante. This drew on him the animadversion of the inquisition. Charles, duke of Calabria, thought to protect him, but in vain. The bishop of Aversa, his chancellor, declared it was highly impious to entertain a sorcerer as a physician, and Ascoli was accordingly burnt at Florence, about three years after the death of the poet whom he had maligned.

The “Commedia” of Dante is a species of satiric epic, in which the reader is conducted through the three stages, “the Inferno,” the “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso,” the whole consisting of a monstrous assemblage of characters, pagan heroes and philosophers, Christian fathers, kings, popes, monks, ladies, apostles, saints, and hierarchies; yet frequently embellished with passages of great sublimity and pathos (of the latter, what is comparable to the tale of Ugolino?) and imagery and sentiments truly Homeric. The highest praise, however, must be given to his “Inferno,” a subject which seems to have suited the gloomy vvildness of his imagination, which appears tamed and softened even in the most interesting pictures in the “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.” Whether, says an excellent living critic, Dante was stimulated to his singular work by the success of his immediate predecessors, the Provenal poets, or by the example of the ancient Roman authors, has been doubted. The latter opinion, Mr. Roscoe thinks the more probable. In his “Inferno” he had apparently the descent of ^neas in view, but in the rest of his poem there is little resemblance to any antecedent production. Compared with the ^neid, adds Mr. Roscoe, “it is a piece of grand Gothic architecture at the side of a beautiful Roman temple,” on which an anonymous writer remarks that this Gothic grandeur miserably degenerates in the adjoining edifices, the “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.

The editions of Dante’s “Commedia” have been very numerous. The best is said to be that of Venice, 1757, 3 vols. 4to. It was first printed in 1472, probably at Foligno, in a folio volume, without place. This is of great rarity and value. The second is in folio of the same date, and the third also of the same date in 4to. The three are accurately described by Mr. Dibdin in his valuable tract, “Book Rarities.” Dante is the author of some sonnets | which are not unworthy of him. A considerable number of them are in his “Vita Nuova.” In the few Latin works he wrote, his progress in that language is evident, but all were soon so eclipsed by his “Commedia,” that, except as matters of curiosity, they have seldom been perused. 1


Life prefixed to Mr. Boyd’s Translation of the Commedia, 1802 3 vols. 8vo. Of this work it may be justly said that few translators have ever entered more into the spirit of their author, or transfused it with more success. Ginguene Hist. Lit. d’ltalie, vol. I, 437, a very elaborate article. —Tiraboschi. Roseau’s Lorenzo, &e. &c.