On 1 May 1274, the Alighieri family was invited to a party by Folco Portinari, a well- respected Florentine nobleman. Nine-year-old Dante went along with his father. And there he first laid eyes on Beatrice Portinari, Folco's eight-year-old daughter. Dante fell in love on the spot.
For practical purposes, Dante's passionate, unrequited love for Beatrice didn't much matter. In medieval Florence, parents chose their children's spouses in negotiations that relied far more on political and economic considerations than frivolous things like love. By the time he was twelve-years-old, Dante had been promised in marriage to a ten-year-old named Gemma Donati. Beatrice would be married off to someone else as well. In all the time that they lived in Florence, Dante and Beatrice spoke to each other only a handful of times. They never kissed, held hands or touched. It's not clear whether Beatrice even liked Dante. But Dante's love for this woman, however inexplicable it may seem, became one of the driving forces in his life and the muse behind his poetry. Beatrice, Dante wrote, possessed "such noble and laudable bearing that of her could certainly be said those words of the poet Homer: 'She seemed no child of mortal man but of God.'"2
In 1283, when Dante was about eighteen-years-old, his father died. Soon after, he married Gemma Donati. The exact number of children they had is in dispute, but scholars believe they had three or four sons—Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni and possibly Gabrielle—and one daughter, Antonia. All accounts indicate that Gemma was a perfectly nice person who cared for their home and children alone for many years while Dante was exiled. However, not a single line of poetry about Gemma or their children can be found in any of Dante's writings. Dante Alighieri was not much of what you might call a "family man." He liked his wife and kids well enough, it seems, but his mind was focused on loftier things.
The loss of both of his parents by the time he was eighteen was hard for Dante, but it turned out to be an important step in his poetic development. He found a father figure in a man named Brunetto Latini, a respected Florentine civil servant and writer, who counseled Dante in public affairs and literature. (Like many a prodigy who outgrows his mentor, Dante took Brunetto Latini's reputation down a peg after the elder man's death. In Inferno, he placed the married Latini in the circle of Hell with those who commit sodomy, though there was no evidence that Latini had ever actually done so.)
He also found an older brother in a poet named Guido Cavalcanti, ten years his senior. Dante became part of a circle of Tuscan poets made up of Cavalcanti and Lapo Gianni. At first, all of Dante's poems were inspired by visions of Love itself, the being that represented his feelings for Beatrice. These poems were part of a new style of writing practiced by Dante, Guido, and Lapo. It was one that Dante termed the stilnovo—"new style." Stilnovo poetry took love as its theme, subject, and reason for being. The young poets insisted that the highest possible aim of poetry is to praise the one that the poet loves, in language that was heart-felt and free of any irony. Theirs were not sappy, "roses are red"-type love poems written just to get into a lady's robes. They saw love as a worthy- even holy - aim.
As Dante matured and realized that his love for Beatrice would never be consummated, he found that he was falling in love more with the act of writing love poetry than with Beatrice herself. Then in 1290, Beatrice died of illness. Dante was devastated. In his poetry, her character changed from the object of his earthly affections to a divine, celestial character, one who would play a major role in the Divine Comedy. In 1292, Dante published La Vita Nuova di Dante Alighieri, a long poem tracing his relationship with Beatrice from their first meeting to her death. The "new life" referred to in the title seemed to signify Dante's new identity as a poet, a wiser man whose work would reflect his new maturity.