Study Guide

Dante Alighieri Childhood

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The boot-shaped peninsula that we know today as Italy wasn't actually a single nation until 1861. For the centuries leading up to that, it was a loose confederation of regions, each with their own government. The only things uniting the Italian regions were the Catholic Church (which wielded tremendous political and military power) and - sorta-kinda - the Italian language (though there were fourteen different dialects spoken across the peninsula).

The most prosperous and populous of these city-states was Florence, headquartered in the gloriously beautiful city located along the Arno River. Florence at that time was the type of place where a street fight between rival families could end with the Pope dispatching peacekeeping troops. Politically, the government of Florence was divided into two factions: the Guelphs, who thought that the Pope should be the leader of Italy, and the Ghibellinis, who thought that Italians should pledge their loyalty to the Emperor of Rome. With their claims staked, the Guelphs and the Ghibellinis went at each other like the Hatfields and McCoys.

Sometime between May and June 1265, Dante Alighieri was born into this feisty Italian milieu. Like many details of Dante's biography, the exact date of his birth has been lost to history. Thanks to the Paradiso, however, we know that he was born under the sign of Gemini. Dante was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione, a property manager, and Gabriella "Bella" degli Abati. Dante also had a younger sister, and, though he refers to her warmly in his poetry, no record survives of her name. When Dante was seven years old, his mother died. His father soon remarried a woman named Lapa di Chiarissimo Cialuffi, who bore Dante's half-siblings Francesco and Gaetana. Dante was educated at the convent schools of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, which were two churches in Florence.

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