Dante first met Beatrice when they were both nine. The next time he saw her was nine years later, when he saw her walking down the street with two companions. He was immediately smitten, but never managed to summon up the nerve to get reacquainted. It remained a distant adoration. His work ‘Vita Nuova’ (New Life) explored his deep feelings for this paragon and she found mention, ‘O, Queen of Virtue’, in his later famous work, ‘Inferno’. Beatrice eventually married Simone de’ Bardi and died a few years later in 1290.
Dante was heartbroken and sought to assuage his grief by getting married himself―it is thought that he hoped it would kill him too, and thereby bring about a reunion with Beatrice in the afterlife. He lived to regret his marriage. His wife, Gemma Donati, bore him four children, two girls and two boys, and made his life miserable. It was Mrs. Alighieri that inspired lines like ‘My haughty wife of evils proved the worst’ in ‘Inferno’.
Not succeeding as a lover, Dante turned to soldiering. A conflict had broken out in Florence between two of the important political parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, all because a Florentine aristocrat was abandoned at the altar and subsequently murdered. Pope Boniface VIII made the situation worse by siding with the Guelphs, and this led to the battles of Campaldino and Capranao. Dante had entered the fray on the side of the Ghibellines, and although they eventually lost, he acquitted himself very bravely
From soldiering, Dante turned to Politics. He became a member of the Apocatheries Guild―there were six guilds in Florence that controlled the city commerce and made all the important decisions. Dante soon became a powerful figure in the Guilds, mainly because he prevented the Florentines from getting influenced by the Pope to form an army to fight His Holiness’ personal enemies.
He couldn’t, however, prevent the Florentines from fighting between themselves. A ferocious struggle broke out between the Cerchi (Bianchi) and the Donati (Neri) factions, and even Papal Intervention could not put an effective stop to it. It ended with a lot of bloodshed and the ousting from power of Dante and the other rulers. He had to flee to exile in 1302 where he remained for the rest of his life.
Until his death in 1321, Dante moved through the other Italian city-states―Lombardy, Tuscany, Romagna―receiving a warm welcome each time from the respective rulers. He stayed with the Lord of Verona for a long time, and wrote the ‘Paradiso’ while here; the work is dedicated to his patron’s son, Can Grande Della Scala. His last patron was Guido Novello da Polenta of Ravenna.
Dante died in Ravenna, in 1321, right after returning from an unsuccessful mission on behalf of his patron to the Doge of Venice. He was buried with honors in the Church of St. Francis. But, almost immediately a new controversy brewed up. His last book ‘De Monarchia’ was published posthumously, and it contained political ideas that were advanced for the times. They were sure to shake the Papal status if they were allowed to become public―Dante called for the Pope to reign only as ‘lord spiritual’ and keep out of earthly intrigues―and so the Pope saw to it that the book was put on the Vatican’s list of banned books. Copies were collected and consigned to public bonfires.
The Church also toyed with the idea of exhuming Dante’s body and subjecting it to public humiliation; but at the request of the citizens of Ravenna, who wanted no such desecration on their soil, that idea was abandoned.
Not taking any chances though, the good people of Ravenna removed Dante from his grave and hid his remains in another part of the Church. They were returned to the original place in 1865, ending his final exile.