Fresco of Dante Alighieri (May/June 1265–13/14 September 1321), by Andrea del Castagno
Dante Alighieri, né Durante degli Alighieri, was one of the greatest writers of all time, and the greatest writer of the Italian language. His choice to write in Italian instead of Latin was a huge influence on those writers who came after him. Because of this, he’s been called the Father of the Italian Language.
Dante was born in Florence, to a pro-Guelph family. His mother, Bella, died before he was 10, and his father remarried quickly. At age 12, Dante was betrothed to Gemma Donati, though he’d been in love with Beatrice Portinari since age nine. Beatrice remained the only woman in his heart, and he never mentioned Gemma in any of his poetry. Indeed, you’d never guess he had a wife from reading La Vita Nuova, the autobiographical work documenting his love for Beatrice.
Dante’s father died when he was a teenager, and Brunetto Latini became his guardian. In 1285, aged about 20, Dante married Gemma and had four children with her. On 11 June 1289, he fought in the Battle of Campaldino with the Guelph cavalry. The Guelphs were victorious over the Ghibellines, but then the Guelphs split into two factions, and Dante’s faction, the White Guelphs, got in lots of trouble with the Black Guelphs.
Dante in Exile, by Domenico Peterlini
To make a long story short, Dante was condemned to perpetual exile in March 1302, and risked being burnt at the stake if he returned to his belovèd Florence. He’d initially only been condemned to two years of exile and a huge fine, but Dante refused to pay. Not only did he feel he weren’t guilty, but all his assets had been seized by the Black Guelphs. In June 2008, Florence’s city council finally rescinded Dante’s sentence.
Recent reconstruction of Dante’s face reveals he didn’t have that famous aquiline nose after all. His nose was probably hooked, but it was pudgy and crooked, not pointy and straight.
Dante now rests in a tomb in Ravenna, in spite of repeated pleas from Florence to return the bones of one of their greatest native sons. The empty tomb in Florence, still waiting for him, bears the inscription Onorate l’altissimo poeta (Honour the most exalted poet), from Canto IV of Inferno. The next line, L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite (His spirit, which had left us, returns), is hauntingly absent.
The name Dante is a Medieval short form of Durante, the Italian form of the Late Latin name Durans, which means “enduring.”
Deianira, painted by Evelyn De Morgan
Deianira is mentioned in Canto XII of Inferno. In Greek mythology, she was the biological daughter of Dionysus and Althaea, and the stepdaughter of King Oeneus of Calydon. Meleager was the most important of her five halfbrothers. Another Deianira (not the one referenced in The Divine Comedy) was an Amazon whom Hercules killed during his ninth labor, the quest for Hippolyta’s girdle.
There are several versions of her tale, including one claiming her as the daughter of King Dexamenus of Olenus. The most famous story about Deianira, however, concerns the Tunic of Nessus. Nessus, a wild centaur, threatened to rape or kidnap her as he ferried her across the River Euenos, but Hercules rescued her and shot Nessus with a poisoned arrow. The dying centaur convinced Deianira to take some of his blood and mix it with olive oil to ensure Hercules’s fidelity.
Hercules, like just about everyone in Greek mythology, couldn’t keep his pants buttoned up, and went around siring kids right and left all over Greece. Deianira got really worried when he fell in love with Iole (also called Omphale), and smeared the blood on Hercules’s lionskin shirt. The blood burnt Hercules so badly, he threw himself into a funeral pyre. Deianira was so distraught she killed herself.
Deianira means “man-destroyer” or “destroyer of her husband” in Greek.