Dante Alighieri is best known as the author of the "Divine Comedy" and as the father of the Italian language. This year marked the 700th anniversary of his death on the night of September 13-14, 1321 with celebrations of his works throughout Italy and beyond, and of course in his native Florence. So here are five things to know about a titan of world literature.
Father of the Italian language
Dante is considered the creator of the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his day - rather than Latin - to write his masterpiece. The "Divine Comedy," originally simply called "Comedia," takes read on an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven where a vibrant cast of characters and incredible scenes play out. Published in several phases in the early 14th century, it was meant to appeal to a wider, literate audience.
The popularity it gained led other medieval Italian authors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, to write in the vernacular as well, laying the literary foundation of Italian. It is no coincidence that the Institute for the Dissemination of Italian Language and culture abroad is called the "Dante Alighieri Association." As part of the 700th anniversary, Italy is also preparing to open a museum of the Italian language in Florence, housed in the Santa Maria Novella church complex.
On par with Shakespeare
The "Divine Comedy" is a poem, a personal story of redemption, but also a treatise on human virtue, and one of the most influential pieces of science fiction.
The first part, the "Inferno" - with its circles of hell is where punishments are meted out on those who have committed one of the seven deadly sins. This stark depiction captured the way we still imagine the afterlife, at least in Christian terms. The British poet T.S. Elliot once said, "Dante and Shakespeare together share the modern world; there is no third." Argentine writer and bibliophile, Jorge Luis Borges, considered the "Divine Comedy" to be "the best book literature has ever produced."
Dante in popular culture
Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers and cartoonists have been inspired by the "Divine Comedy," particularly the "Inferno." These include everyone from Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dali, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to the creators of the X-Men comic books and novelist Dan Brown. Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture "The Kiss" depicts Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers Dante meets in the second circle of hell. The "Divine Comedy" was also a major inspiration for the Oscar-nominated thriller "Se7en," for a popular video game ("Dante's Inferno"), while Dante was quoted in popular TV series’ such as "Mad Men." Bret Easton Ellis' black comedy, "American Psycho" opens with the quote "Abandon all hope ye who enters here" - one of the most widely used quotes from the "Inferno".
Durante, but call me Dante
Looking for travel tips, help with your itinerary or hotels in Italy, contact us direct by phone +39 3282056574 (ask for Lisa) or by email
Like many other luminaries of Italy's cultural past -- Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo -- Dante is usually known only by his first name, which is a diminutive of "Durante."
He was born in Florence in 1265, exiled in 1302, and he died in Ravenna, on Italy's eastern Adriatic coast, on September 13 or 14, 1321. Descended from a wealthy family, albeit not aristocratic, Dante never worked for a living and engaged in politics, literature, philosophy and cosmology. He had at least three children with his wife Gemma Donati, but his lifelong muse was another woman, Beatrice, who appears in the "Divina Comedia" as his guide in heaven.
Dante the politician
Dante was active in politics, serving as one of the nine elected priors of Florence, for a regular two-month term in 1300. At the time, Italian cities were constantly on the brink of civil war between the Guelfs, the papal faction, and the Ghibellines, who sided with the Holy Roman Emperors. Dante began as a Guelf, but after he was exiled —indirectly assisted by Pope Boniface VIII — he became increasingly critical of papal interference in political affairs.
He was tried and exiled from Florence after a new regime took over the city, persecuting the old ruling class. He remained in exile until his death. In 1302, a judge ordered that Dante and his associates be burned at the stake if they tried to return. The sentence was later lightened to death by beheading. In the "Divine Comedy," the poet takes the opportunity to reckon with many of his enemies, particularly reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.