Dante thought politicians had ruined Italy. His poem takes revenge, says Ian Thomson
Dante Alighieri has been dead for 700 years. The date of his death, September 14, 1321, is one of the few facts we know about him. He died of a fever while on a diplomatic mission to Venice, scholars believe, and was buried with “great honour” at the church of San Pier Maggiore in Ravenna.
Dante had been expelled from his native Florence two decades earlier, in 1302, on charges of corruption and embezzlement. The allegations were mostly false yet Dante never again set foot in the city. To this day, Florentines remain painfully conscious that Dante died in exile and that his dust deserves a proper burial in Florence. Seven hundred years on, he has still not moved from Ravenna.
Within a year of Dante’s death, at the age of 56, commentaries on The Divine Comedy had begun to appear in Florence. Commissioned by the Florentine Republic, Giovanni Boccaccio lectured 60 times on Dante within the space of a year. Boccaccio, author of The Decameron and Dante’s first biographer, saw a superhuman authorship in The Divine Comedy. He extolled Dante as a “poeta theologus”, who had championed a new literature written in the “vulgar” Florentine dialect.
Dante’s decision to write his great 14th-century poem in his own Tuscan idiom was a moment of extraordinary significance in the history of Western civilisation. It ensured that Tuscan would become Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national language. If Dante is revered today as the patriarch of modern letters it is chiefly because of his “invention” of Italian, though it is curious to reflect that Italian today might be a quite different language had Dante come from Milan, say, or Naples.
In the 1460s, the poet’s political pre-eminence in Florence was bolstered by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Scarcely 20 when he was appointed head of the Florentine Medici clan in 1469, Lorenzo “the Magnificent” wrote Tuscan dialect sonnets after Dante’s example. Under his rule, Dante was posthumously given the Ciceronian role of optimus civis, ‘‘best citizen’’; the poet was regarded now as a civic patriot who had been selflessly active in the affairs of the Florentine Republic.
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