Famous Italians: Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri
Il Sommo Poeta - The Supreme Poet
He is famous for writing La Divina Commedia.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265.  Although his exact birth date is not known, it is believed he was born under the star sign Gemini (21 May - 21 June). 
  Il segno zodiacale Gemelli.

His name was Durante but he chose to use 'Dante', perhaps as the Italian word 'da' means '(he) gives'.  The ancient Roman belief of Nomen Omen (meaning: the name is the destiny) suggests that Dante may have believed he had a special intellectual gift to 'give' therefore he chose the name Dante for his destiny.

Dante's father was called Alighiero di Bellincione.  His mother was called Bella degli Abati and she died when Dante was a child.  His father remarried and two more children were born - a brother and sister for Dante.  They were called Francesco and Gaetana.  His father also died when Dante was a teenager.

In those times,  parents often arranged a marriage contract  for their sons and daughters whilst they were still children.  When Dante was twelve years old, a future wife was chosen for him and they became engaged.  She was called Gemma di Manetto Donati.

But Dante had already fallen in love with another girl!  When he was just nine years old, he had met Beatrice Portinari and it was love at first sight.   Beatrice remained his idol and he adored her, admiring her beauty from afar.  She was called Bice for short.  It is said that Dante only met her twice - at nine years of age and again when he was eighteen.

Above: A painting by Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927),  an English artist.  This painting portrays their second meeting as Beatrice walks past Dante.  She is the one dressed in white.  This painting is visible at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England.

Dante married Gemma, the girl chosen for him by his parents and they had four children:  Giovanni, Jacopo, Pietro and Antonia.  However, it was Beatrice's beauty and the love he felt for her that were the inspiration for Dante's future poetry.  He did not write any poetry about his wife Gemma.

Beatrice married a banker, but tragically died in 1290, at the age of twenty-four.  She was laid to rest in a church in Florence called Santa Maria de' Cerchi.   (Below.)

Dante was devastated when Beatrice died and found comfort in studying philosophy and was also inspired to write his first poetic work called Vita Nova (New Life).  He wrote in a new literary style called Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style).  Instead of writing in Latin, he brought literature closer to the reader by using the natural, local language spoken by the people - that is to say, Italian as spoken in Florence at that time.

During Dante's lifetime, Florence had political problems.  The two main parties were known as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  Eventually, the Guelphs divided into two separate parties known as the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs.  Dante belonged to the White Guelphs.  Unfortunately, the Black Guelphs gained power in Florence and Dante was banished in 1302.  He never returned to his beloved Florence.

Devastated and outraged at the unfair treatment and betrayal shown to him by his home city, he wrote his most famous work - La Comedia.  In modern Italian - La Commedia.  It is a poetic and philosophical work.
The writer Giovanni Boccaccio later added the word 'divina' to the title.  Since then, it has been called La Divina Commedia.

La Divina Commedia is a book written in poetry. There is an introduction followed by three separate sections.   Each section contains thirty-three chapters.  Each chapter is called a 'canto.'  There is a total of one hundred canti (including the introduction.) 
The first section of thirty-three canti is called Inferno (meaning- Hell). 
The second is called Purgatorio (Purgatory). 
The third is called Paradiso (meaning - Heaven). 

In The Divine Comedy, there are characters who are significant to Dante, for example: Beatrice, the poet Virgil, political figures and acquaintances.  There are mythical and Biblical characters.  Dante himself is the narrator - a character who is about thirty-five years old. 

The Divine Comedy is a very important piece of literature because it was written in a form of Italian rather than Latin.  It was written in the new style of Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style) using the local Tuscan language as spoken in Florence.  This eventually became the official form of the Italian language.   In fact, it is said that the modern Italian language began with the writing of The Divine Comedy. 
That is why Dante is also referred to as The Father of the Italian Language.

The opening verse of The Divine Comedy (from the first section called Inferno) is very famous.  It is this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Midway upon the journey of our life
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
I found myself within a forest dark,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

There are many famous quotes from La Divina Commedia.  One of them is the writing seen 'above the gates of Hell'.  It is this: 
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.  
It means- Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
(Canto III, line 9).

Dante died in exile in 1321, in the town of Ravenna after completion of The Divine Comedy.  He had spent nineteen years in exile and was fifty-six years old.  His tomb remains in Ravenna (photo below).
Tomb of Dante

Dante is in the unusual situation of having two tombs!  The people of Florence wished for him to be buried there in his home-town but his tomb remained in Ravenna.  So, centuries later, in 1829, the people of Florence built an empty tomb as a memorial which can be seen in La Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. (Photo below.)  In the same church are to be found the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo.

The empty tomb can be seen below.  It bears the inscription 'Onorate l'altissimo poeta.'  This means 'Honour the great poet.'  These words were taken from a part of La Divina Commedia: Inferno, Canto IV
"Onorate l'altissimo poeta;
l'ombra sua torna, ch'era dipartita".
So, the words on the tomb were written by Dante himself!

In paintings and statues of Dante, he is often wearing a laurel wreath on his head (as seen below.)  In Ancient Greece and Rome, the laurel leaves or bay leaves worn as a crown became the symbol of victory.  In Florence, during the time of Dante Alighieri, the laurel wreath came to represent a brilliant poet.  The term 'poet laureate' comes from this tradition.

Poet Dante
An interesting fact: the laurel wreath is worn by Italian university graduates as a crown on their graduation day!
The Italian word laurea = university degree.
Corona d'alloro - laurel wreath.

In 2008, the city of Florence officially apologised to Dante for his exile 700 years earlier.

One of Dante's descendants (a great, great, great....and so on............ grandson) is called Conte (Count) Sperello di Serego Alighieri.  He has inherited his ancestor's intellect: he is a well-known astronomer, just like Galileo!  He even looks amazingly similar to Dante!   His family still owns the land acquired by Dante's son, Pietro, in 1352 where they have vineyards that produce Valpolicella wine.

he famous Italian composer of opera, Giacomo Puccini, wrote an opera called Gianni Schicchi.  This opera is based on the story of Canto XXX from Inferno (Hell) of La Divina Commedia.
To hear an aria from the opera Gianni Schicchi click
HERE and go to Track 1 of Claudia's Italian Opera Jukebox.

Grazie, Dante Alighieri!
Thank you, Dante, for giving us La Divina Commedia.   You created the greatest piece of Italian literature during your  unjust exile.  This is a wonderful gift. 
Grazie mille!

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