Italian Culture: Dante Alighieri



Elsa Franco Al Ghaslan

Published — Friday 21 December 2012

Last update 20 December 2012 11:48 pm

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In any conversation or simple talk, once we want to speak about "Italian Culture," the first name that comes to mind is "Dante." Why? Simply because he was the so-defined "Father of the Italian Language." He was the one, in fact, who raised a semi-barbaric mixture of Latin and different idioms brought in by the many invaders that infiltrated the peninsula — after the fall of the Roman Empire — to the rank of a true, new, beautiful language.
Dante (1265-1321) was born in Florence but, for political reasons, was compelled to leave his beloved hometown for good. Two were the main parties that opposed each other in ruling the city: The Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The former supported the Papacy, the latter the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante was a Guelph, as his father Alighiero had been, and took part in the Battle of Campaldino, after which amendments were made to the Florentine Republic constitution.
He was married to Gemma Donati, the daughter of a wealthy family. He had been engaged to her since childhood, and with her he had several children. But the "love of his life" was Beatrice Portinari, whom he worshipped since he first met her at the age of 9 and to whom, in a way, his masterpiece "The Divine Comedy" is dedicated.
After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs divided into White (to which Dante belonged) and Black. After the Black took power the poet, who at the time was in Rome, was exiled from Florence, unless he paid a huge fine. Had he tried to re-enter his hometown without paying, he might have been burnt at the stake. Although later an amnesty was granted, Dante was too proud to comply with its humiliating terms and preferred to accept the invitation by the city of Ravenna, where he moved and later died. His body rests in Ravenna, leaving empty the huge tomb that Florence later dedicated to him, where you can read the words "Honor the greatest poet."
The cenotaph, decorated with three beautiful statues, is located in the gothic Basilica of Santa Croce, where the bodies of many great Italian men such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo are buried.
In Dante's times only Latin was considered the literary language and was used by writers and poets. He, mainly using the Tuscan vernacular, some Latin and other regional dialects, created “Italian”, thus allowing literary works to reach a wider readership. His genius, though, was not fully recognized until the Romantic Era, several centuries later.
Besides "Convivio" (The Banquet), "La vita nova" (The new life) and many other works, the one Dante is universally known for is "The Comedy," later called "Divine" by another illustrious writer, Giovanni Boccaccio. It recounts an imaginary journey he undertakes through the Afterlife (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) under the guidance of the Roman poet Virgil first, of his ideal woman, Beatrice, later.
The poem is defined "allegorical" because the story it narrates — a "physical" voyage through the three realms of the dead, where Dante meets with and talks to several "people" — actually represents the peregrination of the soul.
Dante starts his journey at the age of 35 ("in the middle of his life", that in those days was considered to last about 70 years). He finds himself lost in a dark forest (representing "sin") and is rescued by Virgil, who accompanies him though the funnel-shaped Inferno, divided into "gironi" (levels) that reach down to the center of the Earth. Here he sees many sinners, who are punished according to the law of "contrappasso" (a kind of poetic justice).
When Dante and his guide finally come out, at the other side of the world, they climb up the hill of Purgatory, where sinners are condemned for their "motives" rather than for their “actions.” The last part of the journey, Paradise, sees Beatrice, the perfect model of a woman, as the poet’s guide.
The “Divine Comedy” is composed of 100 “cantos” (chapters), 33 for each section plus an introductory one. The poet expounds upon all branches of human knowledge, from religion to science, to mathematics, to geography, history etc. He had an encyclopedic understanding of the doctrines of his time and was able to express any thought in the most poetic way.
I would like to conclude with the English translation of a few of my favorite verses. Just see how Dante defines "the sunset":
"Now was the hour that wakens fond desire
In men at sea, and melts their thoughtful heart
Who in the morn have bid sweet friends farewell."

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