Dante Alighieri (baptised Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri) was born in Florence between May and June 1265 (the date is uncertain, we only know that he was Gemini). He was a poet, writer and politician, but above all a great innovator of Italian humanistic culture, literature, and poetry. He is considered one of the fathers of the Italian language for having made vernacular, i.e. the Tuscan dialect, a noble literary language. Known as theSommo Poeta (Supreme Poet) or, simply, the Poet, he is the author of the Divine Comedy, the first major work written in Italian, a real masterpiece of world literature, a treasure trove of images and figures that have inspired many artists, writers and poets over the centuries. Discover the life and work of the man who forever changed Italian culture and much more besides.
THE INVENTION OF THE ITALIAN LANGUAGE
With Dante, vernacular (the Tuscan dialect) assumed the role of a cultured and literary language. He wanted to find a common linguistic medium for Italians. His aim was to make vernacular, the common language of everyday life, the official language of culture and literature, as he considered Latin (which was used to spread culture at the time) too far removed from life real and a medium of expression that was somehow fake and artificial. His fundamental intention was to break down barriers between the upper classes (who communicated in Latin) and the working classes, to allow even those who were not noble or educated to learn and get to know literary and philosophical works, with subsequent beneficial effects on morality and the civic sense of individuals.
FLORENCE AND POLITICAL PASSION
Dante was a keen observer and critic of the political and social scene of his day, especially in Florence, his hometown. He criticised the corruption and malpractice of the rulers and the ecclesiastical hierarchies, making many enemies among his fellow citizens and ending up being exiled from Florence in 1301. He belonged to the important Florentine Alighieri family, which was linked to the political strand of the Guelphs (supporters of the papacy), which opposed the power of the Ghibellines (supporters of the Emperor). He was a pupil of the Florentine politician and scholar Brunetto Latini, from whom he learned the idea of politically engaged literature with a strong social value as a tool for addressing the imbalance in the social and political situation. Even in exile, he continued to launch his invectives against the corrupt and deeply unfair political system.
THE NEW POETRY
Dante was, among many other things, one of the most important representatives of the Dolce Stilnovo poetic revolution, also known as stilnovismo. In the second half of the twelfth century, several young poets (the most famous of which was Guido Cavalcanti) rejected the excessive formalism widely found in the dominant style in those years. Instead they proposed less complex, “sweeter” (dolce) compositions, creating a form of poetry that did not only concentrate on the suffering of the lover but which primarily aimed to celebrate the spiritual qualities of the beloved. The name of the poetic movement can be traced back to Dante himself: in Canto XXIV of Purgatory, the poet Bonagiunta Orbicciani defines Dante’s Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore (Women who Understand the Truth of Love) with the phrase “dolce stil novo” (sweet new style).
BEATRICE, THE FIRST MUSE
Dante was married to Gemma Donati, a member of the important Donati family, but the marriage between them was seemingly an unhappy one. Dante never dedicated poems to his wife and his wife probably did not follow him into exile. Instead, he was inspired by another female figure: Beatrice, the woman-angel, a literary transfiguration who according to some critics really existed, and was in fact Beatrice Portinari, known as Bice. The cornerstone of Dante’s poetry and his stil novo poems, she was the first woman to leave an indelible mark in Italian literature. Love for Beatrice was the starting point for the new concept of gracious love exalted to spiritual devotion, a strongly idealised and allegorical love that transforms love for a woman into mystical love (as is evident in the Divine Comedy when Beatrice guides Dante in Paradise).
THE DIVINE COMEDY
The Divine Comedy (originally called just “Comedìa”, but best known as Commedia or Divina Commedia in Italian) is Dante’s most celebrated work in Italy and around the world. An absolute masterpiece of literature and symbol of medieval culture, the poem tells the story of Dante’s imaginary and allegorical journey through the three spiritual realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, in verse. All the virtues and vices of the earthly world are projected into this magnificent fresco of the great beyond, which according to scholars was composed between 1304 and 1321, the years of his exile. The Divine Comedy is a vivid representation full of emblematic images that have become the shared heritage of generations of artists and poets (such as all the pictures related to Hell, the seven deadly sins and the punishments that the damned have to suffer for their guilt). The Divine Comedy is an immense, unique text and one of the pinnacles of the Italian culture. Its verses conjure up a broad and dramatic vision of a socio-political but also literary and spiritual era that freed itself from the previous models, preferring edifying, didactic literature in order to develop a wonderful blend of imagination and political analysis, philosophical reflection and expressive mastery. The work was an immediate success and made an exceptional contribution to the process of consolidating the Tuscan dialect as the Italian language.
ON POWER, LANGUAGE AND LIFE: THE OTHER WORKS
In addition to the love poems and the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote much more. Vita Nova (probably composed in 1292-1293) is a work that celebrates his encounter with and love for Beatrice, a sort of spiritual autobiography in typical Dolce Stilnovo poetic fashion. Convivio (1303-1308), from the Latin “convivium” or “banquet” (of wisdom), is the first work he wrote after his exile, and is dedicated to the civil value of literature. Dante wanted it to be a sort of encyclopedia to educate those who intended to devote themselves to public activities without having first completed the regular studies. De vulgari eloquentia is a treatise in Latin contemporary to Conviviothat defends the value of the vernacular, the dialect commonly used (although it was written in Latin because he was addressing the cultural elite). Another important work is De Monarchy (1310-1313), which exposes Dante’s political thought and defines the roles and responsibilities of the two great authorities of the time: the Pope and the Emperor. Taken together, with their variety of themes and content, these texts show the greatness of Dante, a true genius of humanistic culture, a man whose life was spent investigating the meaning and significance of his surroundings, with exceptional finesse and sensitivity.
Source: Swide, by: Jonathan Bazzi