Now to a bit of a bird's eye view of how Dante's Italy fits into the overall political and historical framework of Western history and a bit about his early life.
The Roman Empire was the solidifying core of the Ancient World. After Constantine was converted to Chrisitianity he moved the core of his empire eastward to Constantinople. This left the Western part of the empire, Rome being the centre, open to invasion by the Barbarians of the North. Western Civilization was eroded in this way for almost a thousand years. This is why this period of time is called The Dark Ages. While the political establishment structures suffered seriously from this time, the Church was actually able to carry the light of civilization to one degree or another. As a result of this and a political bargain in 734 between the Pope and the Frankish King, the Pope actually gained extraordinary temporal powers.
Italy was broken up as a result of the invasions and turmoil of the Dark Ages into several powerful city states which had no overall leadership or institutions. Between the cities there was constant rivalry and violent feuding. In addition to this racous chaos there was a major politcal split between two parties: the Ghibellines and the Guelfs. The Ghibellines were aristocratic and sided with the Emperor and the Guelfs were more in favour of "democracy". These lines were not clear cut and strange alliances would often form to further a shifting feud. And then surrounding Italy's divisive situation were the opportunistic European powers.
Out of this tumultuous time the Renaissance was being born and the Dark Ages were giving way to a new era. Trade was vigorous and a civilized and cultured society (the Ghibellines) was eagerly patronizing music and the arts, while scholars, both clerical and lay, were founding schools and universities for the study of science and philosophy.
During this time in the year 1265, under the sign of Gemini, Dante Alighieri was born to a Guelf family who possessed a reasonably good standing in society. His mother died when he was five or six and his father died when he was twelve, leaving him and his brothers to the care of a stepmother.
When Dante was nine years old he had an experience that was to influence his life like no other would. He went with his father to a house party put on by a wealthy Florentine citizen. There he met the host's daughter who was a year younger than he "dressed in a noble colour, rich and subdued red, girded and adorned in a manner becoming to her very tender age." And he declares most truly that at that very moment his heart trembled and said, "Behold a god stronger than I that is come to bear rule over me." Then he said to his soul: "Now is your bliss made manifest" and his senses lamenting replied, "Alas! How often henceforth shall we be troubled."
Yes, Dante had seen Beatrice. Hardly anything historical took place between he and Beatrice as he lived in the day of courtly love. Besides, marriage was more of an affair of politics than love.
In Beatrice Dante saw the Divine incarnated on earth and treated her as such. Dante had to wait until he was eighteen until Beatrice acknowedged him. She gave him a "salutation of such virture that I seemed to behold the utmost bounds of bliss... if at that moment anybody had put a question to me about anything whatsoever, my answer would have been simply 'Love', with countenance clothed with humility."
The next time he saw her she ignored him because of scandalous rumours; he was completely crushed by that small gesture. He saw her once more at a party at which he was completely overcome with emotion. In 1290 Beatrice died and Dante went into deep mourning.
Dante's response to her death was to write a book of poems entitled La Vita Nuova - The New Life. He ended the book (at the age of 25) by telling "how he had had a marvellous vision of the dead and 'glorified' Beatrice":
...I beheld things that determined me to speak no more of that blessed one until such time as I could treat of her more worthily. And to this end I study as much as I can. So that if it please Him by whom all things live to prolong my life for a few years, I hope to write of her what never yet was written of any woman.
Dante had made a mark on poetry in 13th century Italy. You might think that he just sat around writing poetry but actually by the age of 18 he was the head of the house and conducted significant business transactions. At the age 25 he was fighting skillfully in the Battle of Campaldino. This battle established the rulership of the Guelfs as they drove out the Ghibellines from Florence.
It was the year after this that Beatrice died and true to his word Dante studied ferociously. He improved his Latin, read philosophy, theology (read tons of Aquinas), science (especially astronomy) and classical poetry. He was a very intense reader. There is a story of how, becoming immersed in a new book outside a shop, he read for about five or six hours totally unaware of an uproarious city festival going on in the street behind him. He nearly read his eyes out and had for a time to fall back on darkness and applications of cold water.
His character, however, showed no evidence of a "bookworm". He was quite a social being. Near the end of Vita Nuova Dante wrote about a time after Beatrice's death when he saw a woman at a window who looked on him compassionately. He wrote his first Ode to this lady. During his exile Dante (in Convivio) said there was no real lady; it was a metaphor for Lady Philosophy to whom he went for consolation.