Dante was born into a family of Italian politicians who supported the Papacy during a period of turbulent conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. Although he was arranged to be married at age twelve, he had already fallen deeply in love with another: Beatrice Portinari, or Bice, a florentine girl that Dante had met at a May Day party. Dante was nine, and she eight. They had not yet spoken.
Dante’s love for Bice endured despite both of their marriages to other people, and in his poetic work, Dante deified her (without ever making any surviving mentions of his actual wife). According to Dante, he and Bice only ever met twice; the second time, in passing on the streets of Florence, Bice said hello to him. She died in 1290, at the age of 24, and Dante fell into a deep depression, losing himself in other worlds of antiquity, literature and philosophy.
As an apothecary, a solider, and a White Guelph (his political affiliation), Dante’s contributions to society remain mostly unremembered. However, in 1301, on delegation to the Vatican, Dante survived a coup d’etat that occurred in Florence, which resulted in the deaths of many of Dante’s friends, family, and colleagues at the hands of the Black Guelphs. Dante himself was exiled from his home, at which point he found himself inspired to begin writing the pinnacle of human literary achievement: The Divine Comedy, a semi-autobiographical epic poem in which Dante traverses across the nine levels of hell, navigates Purgatory, and ascends to paradise to look upon the Empyrean godhead. In the light of his God, Dante comes to understand divine truths of the universe (knowledge that he is unable to impart, despite being a very skilled writer).
While some of the moments in the epic are deeply personal for Dante (such the damnation of certain traitors to his city, or his character’s reunion with the spirit of his lost love, Beatrice), the 33 Canticas that compose the work encompass a cumulative vision that span centuries of Western philosophy and theology. Although the verses didn’t satisfy the vogue of the late Middle Ages, the Divine Comedy would propel Dante to become one of Europe’s best known literary icons by the 1800’s.