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Statue of Dante in Piazza Santa Croce, Firenze

Statue of Dante in Piazza Santa Croce, Firenze

Auguri Dante!  2015 is the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante.  His actual birth date is unknown, but he does provide clues in ‘Paradiso’ that he was born under the sign of Gemini.  In 1265, Gemini was mid May to mid June, a bit earlier than it is now.

Dante is known as the ‘Father of the Italian Language’.  His most famous work La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) is considered a masterpiece, the first and also the greatest work of literature in the Italian language.  In the late medieval period, Latin was the only language for education, literature and religion.  La Divina Commedia was the first major work written in a language of ordinary speech, the way people actually spoke at home. Dante combined Tuscan and other dialects and some Latin, establishing the modern Italian language.  Even though La Divina Commedia was written in 1308-20 the language is understandable today.

La Divina Commedia is a long poem in 3 parts, emphasizing the importance of salvation and Divine love. It outlines Dante’s imaginary trip to Paradiso (Heaven), passing through L’Inferno (Hell) and Purgatorio (Purgatory) to get there.  It is also a critique of famous figures of his time. The work is filled with historical references and discusses politics, religion, ethics and love. La Divina Commedia has no jokes and is not funny.  The reason it is called a commedia is because it is not a tragedia (trajedy) and it has a happy ending.

Dante was born in Firenze (Florence).  He studied philosophy, poetry, and was also a pharmacist because nobles in public office had to belong to one of the city’s guilds.  This isn’t as strange as it sounds because books were sold by pharmacies at the time. Dante’s family was involved in the Guelfi/Ghibellini (Guelph/Ghibelline) conflicts.  The Guelfi supported the Papacy and the Ghibellini supported the Holy Roman Emperor -although there wasn’t actually one at the time.  The Guelfi split into 2 groups because the Pope at the time kept interfering with internal matters in Firenze.  The Guelfi Bianchi (White Guelphs) did not want the Pope involved in city politics and the Guelfi Neri (Black Guelphs) supported complete Pope authority.  Dante’s family were Guelfi Bianchi.  In 1302, Firenze was occupied by the Guelfi Neri and the Guelfi Bianchi, including Dante, were exiled. The other Guelfi Bianchi in exile were pardoned a few years later, but not Dante.  He was kind of a badass in exile and burnt his bridges by writing many nasty letters, so he stayed in Roma.  Dante was offered amnesty in 1315, but there were strings attached and a heavy fine which he couldn’t pay. He wrote La Divina Commedia while in exile and managed to write all of his opponents to eternal damnation, imaginatively making up all sorts of horrible existances for them in l’Inferno.  He obviously put a lot of effort into coming up with all of the horrible details! If Dante were alive today I think he would be writing political satire in Paris.

Dante never returned to his beloved Firenze.  He moved to Ravenna, where he completed Paradiso and died in exile in 1321.  He is buried in the the church of San Francesco. Firenze regretted what had happened and repeatedly asked for Dante’s remains. A tomb was built in 1829 in Santa Croce but the requests were refused. In June 2008, Firenze passed a motion rescinding his sentence and exile. Meglio tardi che mai/Better late than never!

Piazza Santa Croce with statue of Dante on the left.

Piazza Santa Croce with statue of Dante on the left.