In honour of my love Dante’s 696th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m rerunning the first half of my post from 5 April 2016. Dante is my next-greatest literary idol, after only Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn.
Fresco of Dante Alighieri (May/June 1265–13/14 September 1321), by Andrea del Castagno
Dante Alighieri, né Durante degli Alighieri, was one of the greatest writers of all time, and the greatest writer of the Italian language. His choice to write in Italian instead of Latin was a huge influence on those writers who came after him. Because of this, he’s been called the Father of the Italian Language.
Dante was born in Florence, to a pro-Guelph family. His mother, Bella, died before he was 10, and his father remarried quickly. At age 12, Dante was betrothed to Gemma Donati, though he’d been in love with Beatrice Portinari since age nine. Beatrice remained the only woman in his heart, and he never mentioned Gemma in any of his poetry. Indeed, you’d never guess he had a wife from reading La Vita Nuova, the autobiographical work documenting his love for Beatrice.
Dante’s father died when he was a teenager, and Brunetto Latini became his guardian. In 1285, aged about 20, Dante married Gemma and had four children with her. On 11 June 1289, he fought in the Battle of Campaldino with the Guelph cavalry. The Guelphs were victorious over the Ghibellines, but then the Guelphs split into two factions, and Dante’s faction, the White Guelphs, got in lots of trouble with the Black Guelphs.
Dante in Exile, by Domenico Peterlini
To make a long story short, Dante was condemned to perpetual exile in March 1302, and risked being burnt at the stake if he returned to his belovèd Florence. He’d initially only been condemned to two years of exile and a huge fine, but Dante refused to pay. Not only did he feel he weren’t guilty, but all his assets had been seized by the Black Guelphs. In June 2008, Florence’s city council finally rescinded Dante’s sentence.
Recent reconstruction of Dante’s face reveals he didn’t have that famous aquiline nose after all. His nose was probably hooked, but it was pudgy and crooked, not pointy and straight.
Dante now rests in a tomb in Ravenna, in spite of repeated pleas from Florence to return the bones of one of their greatest native sons. The empty tomb in Florence, still waiting for him, bears the inscription Onorate l’altissimo poeta (Honour the most exalted poet), from Canto IV of Inferno. The next line, L’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartite (His spirit, which had left us, returns), is hauntingly absent.
Dante is a Medieval short form of Durante, the Italian form of the Late Latin name Durans, which means “enduring.”