Dante: the father of the Italian Language

2021 is a special year for Italy or, to be correct, for the Italian Language. In fact, in 2021 Italy will celebrate 700 years since the death of the man who is considered the father of the Italian Language: Dante Alighieri.

Many of you might have never heard or read this name although I am sure many other know his masterpiece, still today considered the best literature work, ever: the Inferno. All of us, Italians, study Dante’s work at school, beginning from primary school up to higher education because it is based on his writings that the Italian language grew up and took that musical sound that makes it so elegant, just right for music, and fascinating. As a native Italian speaker I have to admit, there is no other language such as Italian which can express every single feeling and every action in a way that no other language can, including those that, like Italian, are based on Latin, such as French, Spanish and Romanian.

Let’s go back to Dante Alighieri. Those of you who have heard his name before do also probaly associate it to the Inferno only, which actually is just one chaper of a more complex work called “The Divine Comedy”. The reason why the Dante’s Inferno is so successful is the ability of the author to depict in such an imaginative way the punishements that await the sinful people in hell, in such a way to impact, still today, on the collective imagination of us all. There is no representation of heall, in the arts, in movies or theatre shows which doesn’t make reference to Dante’s Inferno. However his work includes also Purgatory and Heaven which, together with Inferno make up the whole Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy Illuminates Florence

Dante was born and raised in Florence, and that is why Florence is also considered the Capital of the Italian Language. His work is not juts an imaginative description of what Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are, but a real political work which describes the turbulent sceneario of the late 1200s in Italy and Europe. The personalities that are found in the 3 sections of “the other side” are not imaginary, but real personalities of 1200s Florence, Tuscany and the overall Italian context. Based on Dante’s interpretation (and political belief) some personalities are placed in hell, subject to painful perpetual punishments of every sort due to the way they behaved in life, others are placed in Purgatory as they must expiate some minor sins, while other are in heaven based on the good sense and correctness they displayed in life.

The Divine Comedy is actually a pretty long poem divided into 3 “cantiche” (literally: 3 groups of song): Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Each cantica is divided into 33 “canti” (literally: songs) except Inferno which is made of 34, bringing the total number of canti to 100. Each Cantica ends with the same word: Stelle (Stars).

Dante imagines of starting a walk into a dark wood (the so called “selva oscura”) until he gets lost and find and entrance to a grotto that will lead us inside the Inferno. That is where he finds his Guide: a man who Dante respected very much as well as one of the masters of the Latin Literature: Virgil. Virgil takes Dante’s hand and leads him through the Inferno and the Purgatory and help him understand the reason behind each punishment and the whole scenarios. Once Dante reaches the entrance of Paradise Virgil gives the floor to a very special person: Beatrice, the woman who Dante madly feel in love with as a child and kept loving for his all life despite circumstances prevented him from approaching her and forced him to marry another girl, who also he loved but not as much as Beatrice.

Dante meets Beatrice on the banks of the Arno River in Florence

Dante wrote his book using poetical features: each canto is made up of tercets where the last word of the first verse rhymes with the last word of the third verse. Such structure allow an easy and poetic reading of the book, almost like a song, although some of the words are not of common use nowadays. Exact translation of each tercet is impossible in any language, only the general meaning of them can be captured.

Among the most iconic events described in the Inferno is the meeting with two damned souls: Paolo and Francesca, who are not imaginary characters but real persons lived shortly before Dante. Guilty of lust which led them into an unfaithful affair (the two where brother and sister in law) and murdered by Francesca’s husband, the two are condemned to be perpetually dragged in the air by a stormy wind which pushes them hardly against the rocks. Franscesca approaches Dante and explains him how she madly fell in love with Paolo while reading the story of Lancelot in the garden of her house in Rimini. Despite her punishement however, she is not regretful of her beahviour and says she would do it again as the love for Paolo never left her, even now that she is in hell.

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.

Love, which doesn’t allow to not reciprocate, made me like this man so much that, as you can see, it still does

Dante Alighieri – The Divine Comedy
Paolo and Francesca

The second most iconic moment is the meeting with Lucifer. Dante observes this horrible and horrifying creature, whose legs are trapped into the ice and whose bust shows 3 heads – red, yellow and green – and two big bat wings as big as any bird would ever have. Lucifer constantly flaps them so that the freezing wind he generates keeps the water of the Cocito river, where he is trapped, iced. Dante wrote that if Lucifer was as beautiful as an angel as it is horrible now as the king of a “painful kingdom”, he must have been the most beautiful man in history.

S’el fu sì bel com’elli è ora brutto,
e contra ‘l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,
ben dee da lui proceder ogne lutto.

If he was so beautiful and he is now ugly, and turned against his creator, every pain must come out from him

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXIV
Dante meets Lucifer

You may wonder why the book is colled the “Divine Comedy” as it’s content is tragic rather than comical. You have to consider that Dante wrote this long poem to depict the political scenario of his time, when Guelfs and Guibelins were fighting for power in Italy and in Europe. Dante wrote the book to describe the reasons why he had to leave Florence as an exiliated man whose faction was defeated, thus he actually titled his book ( in 1306, when it was released) “the Comedy” to describe how the opposite political vision was rather comic. The first readers of the book, who welcomed Dante in Verona and then in Ravenna, as a beloved guest, defined it “divine”.Since then the whole work is called “Divine Comedy”.

Dante’s Tomb is found in the city of Ravenna, where he died in 1321, 700 years ago. Although the city of Florence claims Dante’s body, the City of Ravenna doesn’t want his relic to be brought back to his birthplace by saying that “Florence exiled Dante when he was alive, she can’t have him now that he is dead”. That is why, the Church of Santa Croce of Florence, which is home to the tombs of several masters of the Italian Literature does only display a memorial to Dante on the parvis. It’s quite a big statue whose dedication says:

Inchinatevi al massimo Poeta – Fall on your knees before the supreme Poet

There will be several events all around the Country in 2021 to celebrate Dante: if you want to learn Italian, 2021 is the best time to come visit Italy.

6 thoughts on “Dante: the father of the Italian Language

    • Oh good to know you already read it all, the second time you always get more of it. I usually have a history book at hand to check who are the personalities Dante meets during his journey “on the other side”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a great idea – I wrote things down but I don’t think I got the full impact. This will be my new year goal!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I totally understand. It’s the same when we read Shakespeare in Italian… it’s not exactly the same. The thing is that the word “translate” has the same root of the Italian word “tradire” which means: to betray. That’s why translating is a way to say “almost” the same thing, in a different language. Umberto Eco, the author of The name of the Rose, wrote a book a about this concept.

      Liked by 1 person

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