The birth of Dante

Domenico di Michelino - Dante with his Comedia - Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore

Domenico di Michelino – Dante with his Comedia – Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore

When Dante Alighieri was born?

We have few informations about his life, but we can try to reconstruct the story from direct or indirect accounts.

There is strong evidence that Dante was born in Florence, in the quarter of Porta San Piero and in the popolo (literally people, it means parish) of San Martino del Vescovo, son of Alighiero II di Bellincione and Bella degli Abati (maybe a diminutive for Gabriella). His house, in front of the Torre della Castagna, has been in possession of Geri del Bello and then of Alighiero.

Dante never ever speaks about his father, probably because Alighiero worked as a moneylender: at that time usury was considered a grave sin (indeed usurers are put by Dante in Inferno). Bella was maybe the daughter of Durante degli Abati [1], a florentine judge. Perhaps Dante took his name from his grandfather: according to Filippo Villani the poet was baptized with the name Durante, from which could be derived the syncopated form Dante (“Poetae in fontibus sacris nomen Durante fuit, sed syncopato nomine, pro diminutivae locutionis more, appellatus est Dante”, the name of the poet at the sacred fount was Durante, but as a syncopated name, because of the custom for diminutive locutions, he is called Dante [2]). His son Iacopo seems to confirm the name by writing (January 9 1343 [11]) “Cum Durante olim vocatus Dante quondam Alagherii de Florentia, fuerit condepnatus, et exbannitus per Dominum Cantem de Gabriellibus de Eugubio…” (with Durante, sometimes called Dante, from Alighiero of Florence, were condemned and banished by Lord Cante dei Gabrielli di Gubbio…). Though, Dante is never called Durante, in any public document or act, so the doubt remains.

On the contrary, there is certainty about the date of his baptism: following an ancient tradition, all the infants were baptized in Florence on two public ceremonies: the Holy Saturday and the Saturday preceding the Pentecost (see for example [3, 4]). Dante was baptized on Saturday March 27 1266 in the Baptistery of Saint John.

We are also sure about the date of his death: Monday September 14 1321. Giovanni Boccaccio refers that Dante was born “negli anni della salutifera incarnazione del Re dell’universo MCCLXV” (in the years of the salutary incarnation of the King of the Universe 1265), and then writes that he died “già nel mezzo o presso del cinquantesimo sesto suo anno” (yet in the middle or near his 56th year [5]). Buti says that “Ultimamente ridotto in Ravenna, avendo già cinquanta sei anni e quattro mesi, come catolico cristiano finio sua vita, a di’ 14 di settembre 1321 e fu sepolto alla chiesa de’ Frati minori in onorevole sepolcro” (lately in Ravenna, as cristian catholic he ended his life on September 14 1321, and was buried in the Church of Minor Friars in honorable grave) [6]. Many commenters confirmed that Dante was 56 years old at the time of his death [2], among others: Benvenuto da Imola, Filippo Villani, Domenico Bandini, Giovanni da Serravalle, Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti, an anonymous chronicler from Ferrara, and Giovan Mario Filelfo. Others report different years of birth (e.g., Cristoforo Landino, Sicco Polenton, Francesco Maurolico, Bernardino Daniello, Ludovico Dolce, Marcantonio Nicoletti), but they don’t have any credit among scholars because of evident mistakes and discrepancy in their reports. Jacopo Filippo Foresti and Alessandro Vellutello confirm the reports of Boccaccio and Filippo Villani.

Giovanni Boccaccio also tells an interesting circumstance about the death of Dante. Ser Piero di messer Giardino da Ravenna (a notary, friend of Dante), that was present at Dante’s death, told him that the poet said to have passed his 56th year of life, since last May until that day. “E che egli fosse così assai ben si verifica per quello che già mi ragionasse un valente uomo, chiamato ser Piero di messer Giardino da Ravenna, il quale fu uno de’ più intimi amici e servidori che Dante avesse in Ravenna, affermandomi avere avuto da Dante, giaccendo egli nella infermità della quale e’ morì, lui avere di tanto trapassato il cinquantesimosesto anno, quanto dal preterito maggio avea infino a quel dì” (and that it was so, it can be verified by what a talented man told me, called ser Piero di messer Giardino from Ravenna, who was one of the most intimate friends and servants that Dante had in Ravenna, that affirmed that Dante, lying in the infirmity in which he died, had passed his 56th year, than from last May has passed until that day [7]). Following this detail, Pietro Gambera settled Dante’s birthday on May 31 1265, reasoning that “se egli fosse nato prima o dopo dell’ultimo giorno di maggio 1265, non avrebbe potuto dire, quando era nella infermità di cui mori, che aveva oltrepassato i 56 anni di tanti giorni, quanti ne erano passati dallo scorso (preterito) maggio sino al giorno in cui indicò la propria età” (if he was born before or after the last day of May 1265, he couldn’t have said, when he was in the infirmity which caused him to die, that he has passed 56 years of such many days, how many have been passed by the last May, until the day when he indicated his age) [8].

Dante starts his journey in the Inferno “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (Midway upon the journey of our life) (Inferno I, 1). Commenting this verse, Giovanni Boccaccio explains that men’s life was conventionally set to be 70 years [7] (“la vita de’ mortali è […] settanta anni”, the life of mortals is 70 years), and so Dante was 35 years old at the beginning of his journey in the Inferno. Supporting this thesis, Boccaccio cites Psalm 90 (10) of the Holy Bible, where it says “the length of our days is seventy years or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away”. Dante himself speaks about this topic in the Convivio (XXIII, 10) when he says that, according to Aristotle , the life is ascending and descending, and he thinks that the summit point of this arc is “ne li più io credo tra il trentesimo anno e il quarantesimo anno, e io credo che ne li perfettamente naturati esso ne sia nel trentacinquesimo anno” (in the majority I take it to be somewhere between the thirtieth and the fortieth year, and I believe that in those of perfect nature it would be in the thirty-fifth year).

Vittorio Imbriani and others argued that Dante wasn’t born in 1265, because his family was in exile at that time.

In Inferno (X, 46-48) Farinata degli Uberti speaks to Dante about the Alighieri’s family, referring to the exile from Florence of the Guelf part after the arrival of Frederick of Antioch (February 2 1248) and the defeat of Montaperti (September 4 1260).

poi disse: “Fieramente furo avversi
a me e a miei primi e a mia parte,
sì che per due fïate li dispersi”

(Then said he: “Fiercely adverse have they been
To me, and to my fathers, and my party;
So that two several times I scattered them”)

In any case, after the Battle of Benevento (February 26 1266) and the death of King Manfred of Sicily, with the defeat of the Ghibellins, the Guelf part was reestablished. In Florence, Guido Novello de’ Guidi, a ghibelline that became despot of Florence in 1260 after the Montaperti battle, run away on November 11 1266 [9].

Imbriani thought that Dante couldn’t be born before May-June 1267 (in the hypothesis that his father got married before the return of the Guelfs in Florence) or May-June 1268 (in the hypothesis that his father got married after the battle of Benevento or better the escape of Guido Novello de’ Guidi from the city).

But most of the commenters are against Imbriani’s opinion (for example Barbi and Zingarelli), arguing that only a part of the Alighieri’s family was forced to leave Florence (but not Dante’s father, that had no political role); they were not mentioned in the list of “le principali case guelfe ch’uscirono di Firenze” (the main guelf families that exited from Florence), as listed by Giovanni Villani (Nuova Cronica LXXIX).

At this regard, we known from a document of the Monastery of Montedomini [10], that Dante sold in 1283 a credit to Tedaldo di Orlando Rustichelli that he had against Donato di Gherardo del Papa and Bernardo and Neri di Torrigiano; the credit was 21 lire. Many argued that Dante was 18 years old to be able to appear before the notary (and so he was born in 1265), but Imbriani made the hypothesis that since Dante was orphan he could have appeared before the notary even if he was younger [9]. Since the credit was very low, and the appearing of a minor before a notary was logic only in case of high credits, this hypothesis is not reasonable.

Some scholars (for example Cian, as reported by Petrocchi [10]) hypothesized that the Alighieri family was exiled in the Alpe di San Pellegrino, following the account of Giovanni Villani (Nuova Cronica LXXIX), but Alighiero’s wife (Dante’s mother) was allowed to return back in Florence because of her pregnancy.

Since we have clues that set his Inferno journey in 1300, we can date back his birth to 1265 (but someone thinks that it took place in 1301).

This from the sources, but what about Dante’s own words?

The poet states many times that he was born in Florence. For example:

1) “La tua loquela ti fa manifesto
di quella nobil patrïa natio,
a la qual forse fui troppo molesto”

(Thy mode of speaking makes thee manifest
A native of that noble fatherland,
To which perhaps I too molestful was)

(Inferno X, 25-27)

2) “Di vostra terra sono, e sempre mai
l’ovra di voi e li onorati nomi
con affezion ritrassi e ascoltai”

(I of your city am; and evermore
Your labours and your honourable names
I with affection have retraced and heard)

(Inferno XVI, 58-60)

3) “E io a loro: «I’ fui nato e cresciuto
sovra ’l bel fiume d’Arno a la gran villa,
e son col corpo ch’i’ ho sempre avuto”

(And I to them: “Born was I, and grew up
In the great town on the fair river of Arno,
And with the body am I’ve always had)

(Inferno, XXIII, 94-96)

4) “Sott’ esso giovanetti trïunfaro
Scipïone e Pompeo; e a quel colle
sotto ’l qual tu nascesti parve amaro”

(Beneath it triumphed while they yet were young
Pompey and Scipio, and to the hill
Beneath which thou wast born it bitter seemed)

(Paradiso VI, 52-54)

5) “La tua città, che di colui è pianta
che pria volse le spalle al suo fattore
e di cui è la ’nvidia tanto pianta”

(Thy city, which an offshoot is of him
Who first upon his Maker turned his back,
And whose ambition is so sorely wept)

(Paradiso IX, 127-129)

6) “Poi che fu piacere de li cittadini de la bellissima e famosissima figlia di Roma, Fiorenza, di gittarmi fuori del suo dolce seno – nel quale nato e nutrito fui in fino al colmo de la vita mia, e nel quale, con buona pace di quella, desidero con tutto lo cuore di riposare l’animo stancato e terminare lo tempo che m’è dato”

(Since it was the pleasure of the citizens of the most beauteous and the most famous daughter of Rome, Florence, to cast me forth from her most sweet bosom (wherein I was born, and nurtured until the culmination of my life, wherein with their good leave I long with all my heart to repose my wearied mind and end the time which is granted me)

[When Dante speaks about the culmination of his life he means 35 years old, as seen above]

(Convivio I, III 4)

The most clear account of Dante’s birth in his own words is perhaps in Paradiso XXII (106-120):

S’io torni mai, lettore, a quel divoto
trïunfo per lo quale io piango spesso
le mie peccata e ’l petto mi percuoto,

tu non avresti in tanto tratto e messo
nel foco il dito, in quant’io vidi ’l segno
che segue il Tauro e fui dentro da esso.

O glorïose stelle, o lume pregno
di gran virtù, dal quale io riconosco
tutto, qual che si sia, il mio ingegno,

con voi nasceva e s’ascondeva vosco
quelli ch’è padre d’ogne mortal vita,
quand’ io senti’ di prima l’aere tosco;

e poi, quando mi fu grazia largita
d’entrar ne l’alta rota che vi gira,
la vostra regïon mi fu sortita.

(Reader, as I may unto that devout
Triumph return, on whose account I often
For my transgressions weep and beat my breast,

Thou hadst not thrust thy finger in the fire
And drawn it out again, before I saw
The sign that follows Taurus, and was in it.

O glorious stars, O light impregnated
With mighty virtue, from which I acknowledge
All of my genius, whatsoe’er it be,

With you was born, and hid himself with you,
He who is father of all mortal life,
When first I tasted of the Tuscan air;

And then when grace was freely given to me
To enter the high wheel which turns you round,
Your region was allotted unto me)

Dante’s gives here some astrological hints. I said astrological and not astronomical, since at that time astrology had the dignity of a science, and people trusted in the influence of stars and planets on the human things. Dante had certainly studied astrology and he uses it to delimit his birth. In Convivio (XIII, 8) he says:

“A che è mestiere fare considerazione sovra una comparazione che è ne l’ordine de li cieli a quello de le scienze. Sì come adunque di sopra è narrato, li sette cieli primi a noi sono quelli de li pianeti; poi sono due cieli sopra questi, mobili, e uno sopra tutti, quieto. A li sette primi rispondono le sette scienze del Trivio e del Quadruvio, cioè Gramatica, Dialettica, Rettorica, Arismetrica, Musica, Geometria e Astrologia”.

(Whereto we must need consider a comparison that holds between the order of the heavens and that of the sciences. As was narrated above, then, the seven heavens that are first with respect to us are those of the planets; next come two moving heavens above them; and one above them all, which is quiet. To the seven first correspond the seven sciences of the Trivium and of the Quadrivium, to wit grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astrology).

So, if we want to understand what Dante means, we must deal with it.

Sky over Florence on May 31 1265 21:00:00 UTC+01:00

Sky over Florence on May 31 1265 21:00:00 UTC+01:00

He says “I saw The sign that follows Taurus, and was in it”: the signs that follows Taurus is Gemini.

“O glorious stars”: he means the stars of Gemini, maybe Castor and Pollux.

“O light impregnated With mighty virtue”: here it is a reference to Jupiter.

“With you was born, and hid himself with you,
He who is father of all mortal life
When first I tasted of the Tuscan air”

The father of mortal life is the Sun; Dante here probably follows Aristotle’s Physics II “sol et homo generant hominem” (the Sun and the man generate the men).

So he says, when I was born (“When first I tasted of the Tuscan air”) the Sun was born and hid himself in Gemini. In 1265 the Sun transited this sign between May 14 and June 13. This is all we can say about his birth. Following the account of Piero di messer Giardino da Ravenna, cited by Giovanni Boccaccio, we could conclude that the poet was born in a day between the end of May and the beginning of June 1265.


[1] N. Zingarelli, La vita, i tempi e le opere di Dante, I, 1939, pp. 80-85
[2] Le vite di Dante, del Petrarca e del Boccaccio scritte fino al secolo decimosettimo per la prima volta raccolte da Angelo Solerti, ed. Vallardi, Milano 1904
[3] Antonio Lumachi, Memorie storiche dell’antichissima basilica di S. Giovanni Batista di Firenze, ed. Lorenzo Vanni, Firenze 1782.
[4] R. Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze I
[5] G. Boccaccio, Trattatello in laude di Dante, ed. Ricci, p. 573, p.596
[6] F. da Buti, Commento di Francesco da Buti sopra la Divina Comedia di Dante Allighieri, ed. Nistri, Pisa 1858
[7] G. Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la commedia di Dante, Inferno I, 1-6
[8] P. Gambera, Note dantesche con due tavole astronomiche, ed. Jorane, Salerno 1903
[9] V. Imbriani, Studi Danteschi, p.309
[10] G. Petrocchi, Vita di Dante, Laterza 2008
[11] M. Santagata, Dante. Il romanzo della sua vita, Mondadori 2013

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