Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321
Italian poet from Florence. His greatest work, the Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.
The Divine Comedy describes Dante's journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman epic poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the subject of his love and another of his works, "La Vita Nuova." While the vision of Hell, the Inferno, is vivid for modern readers, the theological niceties presented in the other books require a certain amount of patience and scholarship to understand. Purgatorio, the most lyrical and human of the three, also has the most poets in it; Paradiso, the most heavily theological, has the most beautiful and ecstatic mystic passages in which Dante tries to describe what he confesses he is unable to convey (e.g., when Dante looks into the face of God: "all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa" - "at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe," Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).
Dante wrote the Comedy in a new language he called "Italian", based on the regional dialects of Tuscany, Sicilian and some elements of Latin and other regional dialects. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first (among others such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to break from standards of publishing in only Latin or Greek (the languages of Church and antiquity). This break allowed more literature to be published for a wider audience - setting the stage for greater levels of literacy in the future.
The Divine Comedy: The Vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise / translated by Henry Francis Cary; illustrated by Gustave Doré