You may find Sept. 14 listed as the death date for Italian poet Dante Alighieri on some websites, but most Dante scholars say rather that he died in September of 1321. Some don’t even commit themselves that much.
And nobody knows for sure the date of his birth, although the year 1265 seems generally accepted. In fact, a lot of his biography is pretty fuzzy, including his relationship with the famous Beatrice.
Apparently the first thing to know about his Divine Comedy is that he wrote in the vernacular rather than classical Latin – a great breakthrough – and he wrote in Tuscan dialect. His work was so famous and widely read that Tuscan became standard spoken Italian.
Second, there is no copy of the Comedy in his own hand. The earliest copies that exist were written about ten years after he died. The most important ones are those made by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1360s.
Third, Dante called his 14,300 line poem a Comedy. Classic poetry was either high or low – if the former, a tragedy, if the latter, a comedy. Low poems weren’t usually about anything very serious, but he broke all the rules, writing on the uber-serious subject of Redemption in vulgar language. That’s vulgar in its literal sense – from the Latin vulgaritas, meaning ‘multitude.’ It was Boccaccio who called it ‘Divine.’
Fourth, it was written in exile. Why Dante was cast out of Florence, the city of his birth and belonging, is a very long story involving a power struggle between the Guelphs – who supported the Pope – and the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor (Henry VII) and which devolved into a substruggle between the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs, of which Dante was one. The Whites lost and Dante was required to pay a large fine and leave the city for two years, but he refused to pay and the sentence became a permanent exile to various cities. He died in Ravenna.
[Here we must digress – one of Dante’s enemies was Pope Boniface VII, who supported the Black Guelphs. He himself came to an untimely end, described thus: ‘he died of kidney stones and humiliation on October 11, 1303.’ Now that is poetry.]
The city council of Florence, btw, got around to rescinding Dante’s sentence some 700 years later, in 2008.
There are many translations of the Divine Comedy online – you can go to the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF) and choose among three versions of the poem, or you can check out the University of Virginia’s World of Dante or UT’s Danteworld. (ELF was new to me and they have some pretty impressive stuff.)
The importance of La Divina Commedia in the history of literature is beyond question – I look forward to reading it one of these days.