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Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

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A copy of Dante's death mask on display in Florence. Photo: Justin Ennis/Flickr
08:40 CET+01:00
Italy is very proud of Dante degli Alghieri - you can just call him Dante - but who was he and how much do we actually know about him? Blag your way to sounding like an expert with The Local's strangest facts about the poet.

He had a wife and four kids

A lot of Dante’s work is devoted to Beatrice, a woman he met aged nine and who died young, sending the poet into deep grief. He wrote love sonnets dedicated to her perfection and in the Divine Comedy, it’s Beatrice in angel form who guides him through Paradise and to God.

It all sounds pretty romantic – until you discover he had a wife and four kids back home, who were probably not best pleased at the fact they don’t get so much as a mention in his famous epic. Dante married Gemma Donati after being betrothed to her at the age of 12, and they had four children together: Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia, who later became a nun, coincidentally adopting the name Sister Beatrice.

He was a physician, politician and soldier


Dante in a painting by Raphael. Photo: Wikicommons

Thought all Dante did was sit around writing poetry? Think again – Dante actually led a very active life. He trained as a physicist and joined the guild of apothecaries, though he only did this to further his political career. Dante held various public offices throughout his time in Florence, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino against Arezzo.

He was given a death sentence and only pardoned in 2008

Dante lived in a time when his hometown, Florence, was going through political turmoil and in-fighting. When a rival faction gained control of the city, they exiled the poor guy from his hometown for barratry, which Dante insisted was just a cover-up for political persecution. All his properties were confiscated and he was issued with a sentence of being burnt at the stake if he ever returned.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Florence’s city council decided it was time to let it go, and they passed a motion officially pardoning their most famous resident.

His bones went missing for centuries


The spot where Dante's bones rested during the Second World War. Photo: The Local

Dante was still in exile when he died of malaria, and was buried at a church in Ravenna, where he had been living at the time. Florence later decided they wanted to bury Dante in their own city, where they built him a spectacular tomb. Michelangelo and even Pope Leo X campaigned for the poet’s remains to be returned to his hometown, but the sneaky Ravenna monks simply sent an empty coffin, having found a hiding place in a cloister wall for Dante’s bones. These were not discovered until 1865 by accident during construction works, and were re-buried in the Ravenna mausoleum – though they were moved during the Second World War out of fear the tomb would get damaged in the bombing.

Dante had a great memory

There’s a spot in Florence, currently marked by a plaque, where Dante supposedly liked to sit and write his love poems about Beatrice while watching the construction of the Duomo. According to anecdote, he was once asked by a passerby what he ate for breakfast. “Eggs,” replied Dante.

A year later, the same man walked past Dante again, sitting on his favourite rock, and tested the poet’s already notorious memory. “How?” asked the man, to which Dante quickly responded: “With salt.”

And he was famous for telling the truth

Yes, that’s the same Dante who swears several times that his journey through the afterlife literally took place. Truth is a big theme in his Divine Comedy and he repeatedly begs his readers to believe him, most notably right before he and the dead Roman poet Virgil jump on the back of a half-man, half-snake monster, which dutifully carries them down to the eighth circle of hell.

We’re supposed to believe this, not just because of his vivid descriptions, but also because the historic Dante had a reputation as an honest man through his work as a public official. One legend states that, when exiled from Florence, a disguised Dante was stopped by authorities asking if he knew where Dante was. Despite his life being at stake, Dante was apparently so determined not to fib that he tricked them by saying: “When I was coming down the road, he did not pass me”

You’ve probably quoted Dante without realizing

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Photo: Alonso Parra/Flickr

If you speak Italian, that is. Considered the ‘father of the Italian language’, Dante and his Divine Comedy paved the way for writing literature in the vernacular language, which had previously been considered too lowly.  Historical word frequency lists show us that approximately 15 percent of the vocabulary in use in standard Italian today can be traced back to the Florentine poet. That includes neologisms (words he invented) and even several complete phrases which survive today, such as 'vendetta allegra' (roughly ‘sweet revenge’).

And you’ve definitely heard him being quoted

Dante’s Divine Comedy has spawned many English translations ranging from the erudite to slang versions, comic books, TV and radio adaptations and even video games. Novelists including Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Lemony Snicket and Philip Pullman are among the many who have found inspiration between the pages of Dante’s books.

And aside from the film adaptations, it’s also referenced or quoted in Ice Age, Hannibal and Ghostbusters II, and in TV series such as Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, The Sopranos and Law & Order. But perhaps most impressive homage of all is the asteroid belt 2999 Dante, named after the poet.

He was ahead of his time

Anyone who has attempted to tackle his lengthy works might not think of Dante as a ‘modern’ writer, but in several respects he was extremely advanced. Aside from being one of the first Italian writers to move away from using Latin for literature, he was one of the first to come up with an idea of a Limbo, where noble and innocent people who were not Christian could rest in peace. Before this, it was generally thought that unborn babies and pagans ended up in hell. Dante was also tolerant towards other religions, for example placing Muslim leader Saladin in Limbo.

However, the work was written in a medieval context and for this reason Gherush92, an Italian NGO, has campaigned for it to be banned from the classroom due to perceived racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Three was his lucky number

You may already know that Dante’s most famous work is split into three parts (one for each section of the afterlife), and each of these is split into 33 verses or ‘canti’ – plus an introductory one to make 100 in total, the ‘perfect number’. But the number three crops up much more often than that; his rhyme scheme, terza rima, revolves around it and the Holy Trinity has infernal counterparts in the three rivers of hell, three kinds of sins punished (each with three subdivisions), a three-headed beast guarding the Circle of Gluttonous and in many other instances.

Bonus fact: Dante was a Gemini

Dante tells us this early on in Inferno. If you’re keen on astrology, that means he’s independent, witty and imaginative, but restless – sounds about right for the guy who went on a journey through hell and wrote a book about it.
 

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