Dante Alighieri is arguably the most famous Italian writer in the nation’s history and is even credited with the creation of the modern Italian language by some scholars. Born in 1265 in the Tuscan city of Florence, Dante Alighieri came from a noble family of minor aristocrats.
Usually referred to simply as ‘Dante,’ he is considered by literary scholars to be one of the most significant writers of the Middle Ages and the creator of Italy’s greatest piece of literature, ‘The Divine Comedy’. His work was absolutely groundbreaking and resonated through the ages inspiring English writers such as John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Alfred Tennyson among others.
As an expat, I have noticed that Italians from all walks of life, have a lot of respect for Dante Alighieri. He is an important figure
The Life Of Dante – Il Sommo Poeta.
Lovingly known as ‘il Sommo Poeta’, or ‘the Supreme Poet’, Dante had a turbulent life which often gave him inspiration for his unprecedented literary creations. Dante was a member of the Alighieri family which was descended from the House of Elisei and the famous knight, Cacciaguida, who died in the Second Crusade in the mid 12th Century.
Dante’s prestigious lineage meant that he was a minor aristocrat and benefited from an excellent education and influential contacts among the Italian elite. In his teenage years Dante was given an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a Tuscan philosopher, statesman and political strategist.
Following the completion of his apprenticeship Dante left Florence in 1301 as part of a political delegation to Rome. The delegation were traveling to Rome on behalf of a political movement known as the ‘White Guelphs’, to petition the Pope not to annex Tuscany under the authority of Rome.
Unfortunately for Dante and the ill-fated delegation of White Guelphs, while he was in Rome petitioning the Pope the Black Guelphs took over power in Florence, his home city. The Black Guelph were an opposition political party to the White Guelphs and believed that the Pope should rule both church and state, including Tuscany.
In Dante’s absence from Florence he was found guilty of corruption by the newly installed Black Guelphs who pronounced that he was exiled for 2 years and had to pay a fine. However, because Dante was not in Florence, he was unable to pay the fine and was consequently sentenced to death if he ever dared return to his home city.
Dante never returned to Florence and instead left Rome to travel throughout Italy. He went through Bologna, Venice, Verona, Siena and Lucca before he finally made his new home in Ravenna. During his time in Ravenna Dante authored most of his significant books, including completing The Divine Comedy after almost 20 years of work on the manuscript. Dante stayed in Ravenna until his death in 1321, when he died of malaria, aged just 56.
Dante’s political misfortunes and exile from Florence made a deep impression on him and similar themes often arise in his work. Interestingly, one of Dante’s descendants, the Italian astrophysicist Sperello di Serego Alighieri, is still petitioning the church to have Dante pardoned posthumously for the death sentence and exile that changed the course of his life.
Why Is Dante Famous?
Dante is primarily remembered for his literary genius although among Italian linguistic scholars he is also largely credited for creating modern Italian. Dante had a controversial, if short, political career but he was also setting new trends in his literary works. Dante’s best known creation is the epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ which depicts the poet’s own journey from death, through Hell, Purgatory and finally, into Paradise.
During Dante’s time, in the 13th Century, almost all literature and poetry was written in Latin. This meant that only the priests and the highly educated elite members of Italian society had access to the literary works of the period. However, Dante ignored this convention and wrote in the vernacular Italian language, frequently using Tuscan dialect in his work.
In writing The Divine Comedy Dante actually helped to directly create the modern Italian language, much like William Shakespeare did for English. Dante would invent new words, borrow words from other European languages such as French, Spanish and even Arabic as well as translate words from Latin. In this sense, The Divine Comedy is considered to be the earliest literary work in modern, standardized Italian. Dante is also credited as being the first writer to use an interlocked, three line rhyming scheme, technically known as a ‘terza rima’.
What Are Dante’s Most Important Works?
Dante was a prolific writer, and although he wrote many highly regarded lyrical poems and commentaries his most significant work is The Divine Comedy. La Vita Nuova, of ‘The New Life’ was Dante’s first major work and was written while he was still in Florence, before his exile in 1301.
This is a collection of sonnets and songs written in the Tuscan vernacular. It’s in La Vita Nuova that Dante first introduces the character of Beatrice Portinari who later reemerged as his ultimate salvation in The Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy, Dante’s greatest achievement, tells the story of his own journey through Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante is guided through the realms by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and later by Beatrice, his eventual salvation in the plot. The work is poetic, beautiful and mystic in equal measures and the powerful imagery throughout inspired many of the great Renaissance artists and writers of future centuries.
As a result of Dante’s wide travels in Italy during his exile he had an impressive knowledge of regional dialects. He used this knowledge to create a single, unifying language which he named ‘Italian’. Dante hoped that people from all the provinces could read his works. In fact, such is his influence on Italian, that in French the Italian language is nicknamed ‘la langue de Dante’ or ‘the language of Dante’.
Dante’s Major Literary Works include:
- La Vita Nuova – 1294.
- De Monarchia – 1313.
- Eclogues – 1320.
- The Divine Comedy – 1320.
Discover And Explore The Heritage Of Dante In Italy.
On the 14th September, 2021, it was 700 years since the death of il Sommo Poeta, Dante. In honor of his great contributions to the Italian language and society a year long celebration was announced, starting in 2020.
The celebration was called Viva Dante and featured lectures, tours and exhibits that people could visit to learn more about his life and works.
Viva Dante hosted daily readings of his great work, The Divine Comedy, outside of his tomb each day, something which is hoped by the organizers will continue indefinitely.
This year of celebration was great news to Dante’s many fans and finally put to rest the tragedy of his exile from Florence.
However, even if you missed the Viva Dante year, you can explore the life of Dante in Italy at any time! You can get a first hand insight into the great poet’s life by visiting some of the places that he lived and worked as well as his tomb in Ravenna.
Important Dante Heritage Sites In Italy.
The following three are the most important heritage sites:
Dante was born and raised in Florence and you can visit the place of his birth at the Museo Casa di Dante on Via Santa Margherita. The house was reconstructed by the city municipality and in 1965 the museum opened to the public. The museum is divided into three floors which cover the different aspects of his life.
The first floor allows you to explore Dante’s younger years in Florence before his exile. On the second floor you can find out about his literary training and the ways in which he influenced the modern Italian language. The third floor houses a Virtual Reality tour which allows you to see Florence as Dante would have seen it in the 13th Century!
Following Dante’s exile from Florence he fled to Verona where he found refuge within the secure walls of the Della Scala family palace, known as the Palazzo del Governo. The Della Scalas family ruled over Verona for over two centuries, from the 13th to the 14th Century. Dante stayed for a total of 7 years in the palace and wrote much of The Divine Comedy there, safe from his political enemies.
In the central plaza a statue of Dante, erected in 1865, stands as a memorial to the poet’s time in the palace and the important role it played in keeping him safe when he was most at risk. In fact, in the third book of The Divine Comedy, the character named ‘Gran Lombardo’ is a reference to Bartolomeo della Scalla who first gave Dante refuge in the palace after his exile.
The palace is a wonderful place to visit and attracts both tourists and locals to marvel at its spectacular grounds and makes the perfect spot for a family picnic.
In a small mausoleum next to the Basilica of San Franceso, Dante’s bones lie in his tomb. However, even after his death Dante remained controversial and for hundreds of years there was conflict between Ravenna and Florence as to who should keep the famous poet’s remains!
Despite having exiled Dante in 1301, during the 16th Century the rulers of Florence decided that they should have his remains within one of their city’s churches. However, even though the leadership of Ravenna had agreed to the transfer of Dante’s remains, the Franciscan monks who looked after his tomb had no intention of giving them up.
Not suspecting anything, the Florentine leadership sent a delegation to Ravenna to retrieve Dante’s remains but when they opened his tomb it was empty. When they questioned the Franciscan monks they pretended not to know anything about it; and so the delegation had to return empty handed.
Many years later, in 1781, after Dante’s tomb had been renovated the Franciscan monks once again had to hide his bones, this time from Napoleon’s troops. The monks hid his bones and they remained lost until 1865 when they were accidentally found in the walls of a nearby chapel during a renovation. In 1865, Dante’s remains were put back into their tomb but not for the last time.
During World War II, Dante’s bones were once again removed from his tomb and buried under 20 feet of concrete to protect them from being destroyed by bombs or stolen by the Nazi troops. However, finally, after the war was over they were returned to his tomb, where they rest in peace to this day.
Visiting the tomb of Dante is a pilgrimage that many of his fans make each year. The nearby Basilica and surrounding gardens all make the perfect location for a day trip. Dante’s tomb has an inscription carved into the stone on the outside, it reads ‘Dantis Poetae Sepulcrum’, which means ‘the tomb of the poet Dante’.
Inside the mausoleum, an oil lamp hangs from the center of the ceiling above his tomb. The oil that fuels the lamp is sent by Florence each year on the anniversary of Dante’s death in a symbolic penance at having exiled Italy’s best poet from his homeland.
The tomb and mausoleum are free for visitors to access.
Dante Alighieri – Italy’s Greatest Poet And Writer.
In many ways Dante is considered to be a forerunner of the coming Renaissance. Unfortunately, like many artists and writers, he never got the recognition he deserved in his own lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until the Romantic period that his work became widely read throughout Italy and Europe, as he had always hoped.
Nonetheless, Dante’s impact on European literature, the modern Italian language and even the Renaissance itself is hard to overstate. His works, particularly The Divine Comedy, inspired many of the great artists and writers that followed in his footsteps and although his life was mired in controversy and misfortune his incredible legacy has stood the test of time.