The Literary Club

700 Years of Dante Alighieri

Originally by Nuala Szler; Translated by David Crowe

The year 2021 ended as much in hope as it did in unexpected turbulence. No year could end without noise or avoid leaving a serpentine path towards the future. Nevertheless, the last days of 2021 have been, in many ways, special. 700 years have passed since the death of Dante Alighieri, 700 years! What are 700 years for literature?

Presumably, a lot and nothing at the same time. Regardless, this name has continued to be relevant despite the magnitude of years that have passed and this, of course, has not been an accident. 

Dante Alighieri

Who was Dante Alighieri? 

Behind an immortal name, a man of flesh and bone lived to never die in words. Literature is one of the only things capable of granting this power: immortality.

And that name, now eternal, 700 years ago belonged to a real and historic man who lived to write. Dante Alighieri was and is considered the father of Italian literature. Originating from Florence, Dante Alighieri was born between May and June (the exact date is not known) of 1256 and died on the 14th September 1321 at 56 years old, in Ravenna. He had arrived in that region in 1318, fleeing indiscriminate persecution due to the conflicts between two factions that both sought control over the centre of the peninsula; the Guelphs who supported the papacy of Rome – which dominated central Italy – and the Ghibellines who opposed the Pope.

Dante was born in the heart of a Guelph family of a certain economic class: his father had been lucky as a banker and loan shark of the time. At a young age, when Dante was barely 12 years old, a marriage was arranged to the young Gemma Donati, who came from an important Florentine family. Around the age of 20, they married and had at least three children.

After the marriage, Dante began to participate as a knight in military campaigns that Florence partook against enemy city-states, such as Pisa and Arezzo. From 1290, he retired to political life: he was a member of the congress of the people of Florence and, years later, a member of the Congress of the Hundred and ambassador, always as part of the Guelph party. Nevertheless, he was a stubborn opponent of Pope Boniface VIII, who supported the Guelphs, because Boniface VIII considered the literary works of Dante to be symbolic of the moral decadency of the Church.

In 1302 Dante was condemned to exile from Florence. If he had been arrested within Florence, following this exile, he would have been sentenced to die by fire. Yet, this never happened. The writer escaped and lived in different cities, fleeing this fate and without the ability to return to his loved home city.

Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy 

The Divine Comedy, although its name resonates as a universally renowned work of literature, is nothing less than an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in the 14th Century. A controversial poem, where the writer tackles grand questions such as the meaning of life or the control one could have over their destinies, among others. 

Thirty-three hymns, with verses grouped in three and three, each one of which makes one of the three parts of the poem and, joined to the introductory hymn, make one hundred: the perfect number according to medieval thought. There, in a perfectly measured fashion, a journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven corners of Purgatory, and the nine skies of Paradise, is portrayed to the reader.

This work is considered the most important creation of Dante Alighieri and one of the fundamental writings showing the transition from medieval thought that focused on God, to Renaissance thinking which focused on man. Also, thanks to his depiction of Hell, people had an idea of what ‘Hell’ could be, provided that before the Divine Comedy, there had not been an illustrative image of Hell.

Dante Alighieri

A masterpiece of Italian literature that represents a compilation of medieval knowledge in regards not only to religion but also philosophy, science, and moral thought. First called only ‘Commedia’, it was the writer and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio who added the adjective ‘divine’, during the time in which he dedicated himself to reading and commenting publicly upon the text. 

700 years after Dante Alighieri 

Dante contributed to the birth of the Italian tongue, choosing the Tuscan dialect in place of Latin to write his masterpiece. Its success meant that other authors of the Middle Ages, such as Petrarca and Boccaccio also wrote in the Tuscan dialect and so created the foundations for modern Italian.

The repercussions of his writing have been unusual after so many years. Great names have praised his masterpiece such as the British poet T.S. Eliot, who believed, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the [modern] world between them. There is no third”, and the famous Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, for whom The Divine Comedy was “the best book that literature has produced”. 

Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, cinema directors, and comic book authors have been inspired by The Divine Comedy: the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli; the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí; the Russian composer Chaikovski; the creators of the X-Men saga; the writer Dan Brown; among others. For example, “The Kiss” the famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin, represented Paolo y Francesca; the adulterous lovers that Dante depicted in the second circle of Hell. 

700 years after his death, the important life and achievements of Dante Alighieri could not be celebrated worldwide due to the necessary restrictions in place as a result of the pandemic, and important events celebrating Dante and his writings were organised at the last moment.

Italy commemorated its hero in many cities. The Dante Alighieri Society, an entity charged with the diffusion of language and Italian culture all over the world, has also done its part to celebrate the father of literature in Italy. To that end, they are working on the creation of the Museum of the Italian Tongue in the city of the poet’s birth. Moreover, there is a project seeking to recover the remains of Dante Alighieri to inter them in the land of his beloved Florence.

Dante x Alonso 

In Argentina, the National Museum of Beautiful Art (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) together with the Italian Institute of Culture in Buenos Aires, opened the public work, “Dante x Alonso”; open from the 4th December 2021 to the 27th February 2022.

Intending to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the public work shows a collection of 47 works on paper by the Argentinian Carlos Alonso (Mendoza, 1929), that were inspired by the great Florentine poet. 

Curated by the director of Bellas Artes, Andrés Duprat, the pieces that form “Dante x Alonso” are drawings, collages, recordings, watercolours, and inks dedicated by the artist to the writer in two distinct periods of his trajectory. The first collection – being made mostly by portraits in small print – came from the 60s (many of them were created in Italy, in 1968), whilst the second collection is dated between 2000 and 2009.

“These works connect the distant times and show us that the horrors are still replicated and continue feeding imaginations today. Equally to the moments of their production, Alonso works from a classic to deploy his naked critical gaze, giving visibility to the multiple problems and injustices that occur to this day.”

-Andrés Duprat, director of Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires.

Dante and his Divine Comedy have given us feelings that, after seven hundred years, continue repeating themselves with more power than ever. What other thing exists for us to do if not celebrate and continue a legacy as important as that of Dante?