Italian scholars, including the Accademia della Crusca (bastion of the Italian language), are commemorating the 691st anniversary of the death of Italy's foremost national hero--the poet Dante Alighieri--on or about September 14, 1321.
Scholars have quibbled over many facts of Dante’s life, even the year of his birth (the current consensus is 1265) and his name (he was christened Durante—yes, as in Jimmy). Once they assumed that his muse Beatrice was a fantasy or symbol of grace on earth, but she was real, a daughter of a distinguished Florentine family. Dante first glimpsed her in La Badia, a chapel where lovers still leave flowers and notes at Beatrice’s tomb.
Despite Dante’s unrequited, undying crush, the two rarely met and barely spoke. Both entered arranged marriages. Dante’s wife Gemma bore him at least three children, but neither she nor his offspring merit a single mention in his works.
Drawn to Florence’s raucous political life, Dante, as a White Guelf, served as a town prior. In 1301 civil war ripped the city apart. In Rome on a papal mission, Dante escaped the bloodbath but faced trumped-up charges of misuse of public funds. If Dante ever were to return, he would be burned to death.
Around 1307 Dante began work on what he called La Commedia (designated a comedy because it begins in sadness and ends in happiness). No one has pulled off an equal literary tour-de-force before or since.
“When I taught high-school students, I’d get them interested in Dante by talking about the artistic technique of rock musicians, their amazing ability to play so many notes so fast and furiously,” says Italian linguist Giuseppe Patota, “Dante wrote poetry the way a rock star plays guitar.”
The medieval virtuoso composed 14,233 eleven-syllable lines organized into 100 cantos in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Rejecting Latin as too elitist and regional dialects (including his native Tuscan) as inadequate, Dante fashioned a lustrous new vernacular to portray a fantastic universe that stretched from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven.
A word that Dante concocted best describes how he wrote: sovramagnificentissimamente, “in a very, very, very magnificent way."
Readers often ask me to recommend an English translation of the Divine Comedy. If you have a favorite, please let me know by commenting below or e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words and Expressions
un inferno Dantesco –- a place of great suffering, pain and sorrow
bolgia infernale -- one of the “rotten pockets” Dante describes within the depths of hell; used for an especially unpleasant or chaotic situation
amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona -- Dante’s description of a love so strong, like that between the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, that it permits “no loved one not to love.”
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza -- You were not born to live as beasts, but to pursue virtue and learning. With these words, which capture the essence of the human spirit, Ulysses rallied his comrades to sail into the unknown.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchaning Language.
Actor and dantista Roberto Benigni brings the poet's words to life: