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The birth of the Italian language

Dante Alighieri and the birth of the Italian language. Portrait by Agnolo Bronzino (1532).

Dante Alighieri and the birth of the Italian language. Portrait by Agnolo Bronzino (1532).

The birth of the Italian language and the medieval Florentine

Dante Alighieri is one of the most important Italian poets who also had a fundamental role in the birth of the Italian language. He was the first to believe in Italian. That’s the truth. In fact, they called him, appropriately, the “father of the Italian language”. Why? Because Dante did more for Italian than all other writers combined. This is the reason why Dante’s tomb is celebrated in Santa Croce, the most famous church of Florence. In the XIV century, the century he lived in, everyone considered Latin the perfect language, and new languages born from Latin were considered worthless. However, Dante wrote that Italian was worth as much as Latin, and could serve for writing high literary works.

The Divine Comedy and Florentine

In the new language he wrote the most beautiful and famous opera in Italian literature: The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote in his mother tongue, which was 13th century Florentine. He used elegant expressions as well as vulgar ones. In certain parts of the Divine Comedy, Dante even used bad words! The people, who weren’t educated, used the vulgar language (which means those languages which aren’t Latin). So today we say something is vulgar if it isn’t refined. Dante writes in vulgar Florentine. The style varies according to the theme. In fact, it varies from a more colloquial register (in Inferno) to a more refined register (in Paradiso).

Florentine and the birth of the Italian language

The Divine Comedy was so successful that Dante’s Florentine, with some transformation, became the base for today’s Italian. Just think that 90% of the words we use today in everyday Italian were already around in the Divine Comedy! Of course, some of these words have changed meaning over time. For example, the word gentile, or kind, for Dante meant nobile di sentimenti, or nobile sentiments, which today means a polite person. However, most words and their meanings have remained the same! Dante transforms words deriving from Latin into common-use words that we still sat today. And not only Italian, since many words deriving form Latin passed through other languages, like English!
For example, the word “fertile”, fertile: it was the Divine Comedy that introduced this Latinism into the common language. The word derives from “ferre”, or “portare, produrre”—carry, produce. Dante uses it in the XI canto of Paradiso. The celebrated passage by Saint Francis, where the “fertile costa” (fertile coast) indicates the place where the saint was born. That’s how it contributed to the birth of the Italian language!

By |September 11th, 2018|Curiosities, Home|0 Comments

Dante’s tomb. When everybody wants his remains.

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli (Orvieto Cathedral, 1499-1502)

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli (Orvieto Cathedral, 1499-1502)

Dante’s tomb in Ravenna

The Santa Croce Basilica in Florence is home to the tombs of the most illustrious Florentines. But what’s the story behind Dante’s tomb? Is the poet’s body inside the sarcophagus? The answer is no. On September 14, 1321 Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna falling ill (probably malaria) as he was travelling back from the embassy in Venice. Not even in death was Dante able to enjoy the stability he had so yearned for during his last, most tormented years in exile. The day after his death, his body was buried in a sarcophagus in the San Francesco convent. After a few years, the Florentines began to demand the remains of their most illustrious citizen from Ravenna. This “risk” became more certain when two Florentine popes ascended the pontificate throne. Both were from the Medici family: Leo X (1513-21) and Clement VII (1523-35).

The Florentines claim Dante’s tomb

In 1519, Leo X, following a plea by the very famous Michelangelo, gave his co-citizens permission to remove the bones of the poet in order to take them to Florence. However, when the Tuscan delegation opened the sarcophagus the bones were no longer there. In fact, the Franciscan friars had shortly before put a hole in the wall of the sarcophagus from the cloister behind it. They put the poet’s bones in a safe place. Useless attempts were made to have the bones returned. Dante’s tomb was then heavily guarded. Imagine that when maintenance on the tomb was done in 1692, the workers had to work under surveillance by guards!

Ravenna’s monks hide Dante’s tomb

The bones were closed up in a box in 1677 (today conserved in the Dante museum) by the prior of the convent Antonio Sarti. Only in 1781 were they put in their original urn when the current mausoleum was built. The monks hid them again during Napoleon’s time when the convent was closed. This was to keep the occupational troops from taking them and selling them as spoils of war. They were closed in the wall of the adjoining oratory. The monks subsequently left the city and nothing more was learned about the box. So, from the 1800s, everyone who went to Ravenna to pay homage to Dante ignored the fact that his tomb was empty.

Dante's tomb. Statue of Dante by Santa Croce Church

Dante’s tomb. Statue of Dante by Santa Croce Church

The mystery of Dante’s tomb

The bones of the great poet were found by accident by a worker on May 27, 1865. They were doing restoration for the seven hundredth anniversary of his birth. Thanks to a young student, who read and translated the phrase on the box, the bones didn’t end up in a common grave. “Dantis ossa a me Fra Antonio Santi hic posita anno 1677 die 18 octobris”. They were the bones of Dante Alighieri. The remains were reassembled and put on public display for a few months in a crystal urn. Then entombed again inside the small funeral temple. During the Second World War the box was again hidden to keep it from being destroyed during bombing. It was removed from the temple on March 23, 1944 and relocated on December 19, 1945. During this period it was buried close to the mausoleum under a mound covered by greenery, which today is marked with a gravestone. In 1829, in hopes that the relics would be returned, a large neo-classic cenotaph was erected in Santa Croce in Florence. It portrays the poet seated and pensive, raised in glory by Italia, as Poesia weeps over the sarcophagus.

By |September 2nd, 2018|Characters of Florence|0 Comments

Dante Alighieri and Florence

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Portrait by Sandro Botticelli, private collection)

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Portrait by Sandro Botticelli, private collection)

Dante Alighieri and Florence politics

Dante Alighieri and Florence are deeply linked. Besides being the city where he was born, Florence is also the theatre of his education and literary work. Dante Alighieri was born in March (or perhaps June) 1265 in Florence. He belonged to a Guelph faction, the party in Medieval times which supported the power of the Pope over the Emperor (Ghibellines). He grew up during years of great economic growth and culture in Florence. When he was twenty he married Gemma di Manetto, who belonged to a secondary branch of a large noble family. They had four children—Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia. In 1295 he went into politics finding Pope Boniface VIII as opposition. The pope was supported by the Black Guelphs who represented the richest Florentine families. They accepted the Pope’s control over the state’s internal affairs. Dante, however, was part of the White Guelphs. They vindicated instead the independence of Florence from the Papal power.

The Exile of Dante

In 1301, just as Charles de Valois was arriving in Florence and the Black party (supported by the pope) was gaining the upper hand, Dante was called to Rome to Boniface VIII’s court. The political trial thus began. Dante, accused of corruption, was suspended from public office and sentenced to pay a heavy fine. Since Dante, just like his peers, didn’t lower himself to stand in front of the judges, he was sentenced to the confiscation of his assets. If he was found in the territory of Florence, he would be turned over to the executioner. So he was forced to leave his city aware that Boniface VIII had tricked him by holding him in Rome while the Blacks took power in Florence. This is how Boniface VIII gained an important place in the circles of “Inferno” in the “The Divine Comedy”. This was the end of the love between Dante Alighieri and Florence. He never forgave his city for having abandoned him. Dante died prematurely in Ravenna between September 13 and 14, 1321, probably due to a malarial fever contracted in Venice where he had been on a diplomatic mission.

The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Fresco by Domenico di Michelino inside Florence Cathedral)

Dante Alighieri and Florence (Fresco by Domenico di Michelino inside Florence Cathedral)

However, it was during his exile that he began writing his great work The Divine Comedy. Dante chose the title because even though it begins tragically (Inferno), it ends pleasantly (Paradiso). Thereafter, it was defined as “Divine” by Boccaccio to highlight the work’s celestial inspiration and its theological nature. The work is an allegory and describes the divine voyage taken at Easter in 1300. Dante finds himself in a “dark woods” (period of personal misdirection) and is rescued by Virgil. Dante chose Virgil because he studied his works during his formative years. Virgil becomes his guide down to the infernal circles and the climb up Mount Purgatory. He’s then accompanied by Beatrice, always portrayed as an angelical figure, upon his arrival at the gates of Paradise. Saint Bernard guides him in the final part — the Empyrean. The voyage ends with God’s contemplation. The work is divided into 3 cantiche, subdivided into 33 canti each and an introduction. The recurrence of the number 3 is importance as it symbolizes the Trinity.

By |August 24th, 2018|Characters of Florence, Home|0 Comments