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Why Dante will always matter: His ‘Divine Comedy’ is an unmatched masterpiece

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Dante Alighieri, known today simply as Dante, is unanimously considered the father of Italian language. But what does that mean? In Dante’s time, the Italian vernacular, in its regional varieties, had actually already existed for a while. However, every text that aimed at being defined as high literature was still written in Latin, considered to be a more refined language.

Dante Alighieri in a posthumous portrait in tempera by Santro Botticelli, 1495.

Dante (circa 1265 to 1321) is the first intellectual to advocate for the need to hone the Italian language, and for its universal use in literature. The Latin language, as used in classical literature, had ceased to exist centuries ago, and it didn’t make any sense anymore, Dante insisted, to adopt a dead language as the literary standard. Dante also claimed that the Italian language, once perfected, could be as sophisticated  as Latin. So he opted to compose his life’s masterwork, the epic narrative poem Comedia (later “Divine Comedy”) in the unprestigious vernacular Italian.

It was a revolutionary idea, and a triumph. The poet took a relatively young language and shaped it in every way, from vocabulary to syntax (he invented words and idiomatic expressions that are still used today) and made it adaptable to any possible register: from the low, comedic register to the highest, sublime one. Most impressively, Dante provided Italy with a language that was not only as sophisticated as Latin, but was also able to endure for centuries: 80 percent of the Italian vocabulary used today can be already found in Dante’s work, 700 years ago! That’s why Dante is considered to be the father of Italian language.

In this Sandro Botticelli painting that illustrates Virgil and Dante’s descent into hell, horned demons torment pimps and seducers. Below them, those guilty of flattery swim in excrement.

Dante the literary architect

But Dante is also universally acknowledged as one of the foundations of the Western canon, together with Homer and Shakespeare – which means as one of the three authors whose work most significantly influenced Western literature. In my career, I have constantly witnessed the complete amazement with which students encounter and fall in love with this author. But why? Where is this “Dante effect” coming from?

First, his Comedia is more than a literary text. It is a visionary work of literary architecture. Dante literally designed an entire self-standing universe, an image of the underworld that forever shaped our imagination, other works of art, cinema, and pop culture as well, from comics to videogames. He designed it, and populated it with a wide variety of characters: heroes and mythological figures, monsters and devils, kings and popes, common people and politicians, murderers and criminals, saints and angels.

While traveling through Heaven, Purgatory and Hell in his attempt to better understand himself and human nature, Dante manages to entertain and enlighten his audience with these characters’ memorable conversations. Sinners, in particular, are desperate to share their story: as long as their legacy on earth can be even partially restored, they are willing to confess and to expose their most tragic vulnerabilities, be it the inability to resist passion or to contain anger or greed; or the unfortunate choice to abandon reason and justice to give in to violence and treachery. Dante cannot help seeing in each of these characters reflections of himself and of his own vulnerabilities.

His Inferno is a fresco portraying human nature in all of its possibilities. That’s why we can make a distinction between “Dante the author,” who represents the moral authority and places those characters in Hell, and “Dante the character,” who represents all of us and our human fallibility, and is very often touched by their stories, and sometimes even overwhelmed with empathy and pity. It’s the coexistence of these two contrasting layers that creates some of the highest poetic moments in the Comedia.

Students are also fascinated by how Dante is constantly engaging the reader within the text. Quite often, when a character is introduced for the first time, Dante doesn’t just give out their name, but implicitly invites the audience to identify the characters. For example, when Virgil first appears on the scene, he doesn’t say: “I am Virgil, the Latin poet.” Rather, his self-introduction unfolds through a series of clues  until an excited Dante is able to identify him. Dante introduces other characters in similar fashion. While today’s students need footnotes to help them identify  these characters,  they are intrigued by this narrative strategy: it displaces us from our privileged position of readers, and places us next to Dante, in the dark of the Hell, trying to piece together the clues and guess who is the character who is talking to us. This leads us to another point.

If the journey described is fictional, the style of Comedia is extremely realistic: Dante constantly uses metaphors and similutedes from our everyday life in order to make an image more “visible” to the reader.  The devils, for example, pinch with their pitchforks the grafters trying to emerge from the black pitch in which they are being punished, “as a cook would do with some piece of meat emerging from the boiling water.” But the realism is not confined to the vocabulary or the images adopted, but extends to the epic’s entire “filmmaking style.”

The Inferno is extremely cinematic and impressionistic. Consider the scene when Dante and his guide, Virgil, finally cross the gate of Hell, and experience a roiling tumult of sound – the agonies of the damned.  When I discuss this with my students, they realize that this is precisely what would happen if they were walking underground in complete darkness.  They would hear the place before their eyes adjusted to the darkness. Reading the Comedia is really a kind of cinematic experience, and that’s why the subject is so  adaptable to so many different media.

Portrait of Dante Alighieri by Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli.

Tamper-proof poetics

Finally, all this grandiose universe is framed in a perfectly structured “cage.” The Comedia is made of 14,233 verses, all formed by 11 syllables, and all interlocked with an original rhyme pattern, named “terzina dantesca” because invented by Dante himself: ABA, BCB, CDC etc.

What is so special about this rhyme pattern? Previous poetic works would usually present an ABAB or ABBA ABBA pattern. That would allow anyone with access to the text (for example the monks in charge of transcribing and distributing the work) to alter the text, either editing it, or adding, or removing lines. Dante, by inventing this new intertwined structure, provided the prosody not only with a more narrative flow, but also with a sort of “lock,” a “copyright” device that would prevent anyone from altering even just a single line of the text. Even for this brilliant invention alone, Dante should be considered a genius.

Students are amazed by all this, without even going into the philosophical, political and linguistic implications of this masterpiece. And what is really rewarding about my job, is the possibility to experience this amazement anew, time after time, through the first amazement of the students. This is what makes me so fond of my profession. It’s Dante. It’s the Dante effect!

 

Alessandra Mirra, a native of Rome, Italy, received a Ph.D. in Italian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She is coordinator of the Italian program at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., where she teaches courses in Italian language, culture and literature. Her publications revolve mostly around modern and contemporary Italian literature as well as Italian cinema and adaptation studies.