Meet Dante Alighieri's stargazing Italian descendant

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Dante's descendant Sperello di Serego Alighieri (L) and the poet's deathmask. Photo: Sperello Di Serego Algieri/Digitalmamma824/flickr
08:35 CET+01:00
To honour the 750th year since the birth of Italy's most famous poet, The Local met his great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandson.

Sperello di Serego Alighieri is his name and he hasn't spent much time dwelling on his family history.

In fact, he has spent most of his life staring out of observatory domes at distant galaxies. He is an astronomer, currently living and working at the Arcetri observatory in Dante's old stomping ground of Florence.

“People ask me about my name a lot,” Alighieri tells The Local. “They are always pretty shocked when I tell them I'm his relative. So much time has passed that most people don't believe it's even possible.”

Impossible it is not: but it it is highly unlikely. To give you an idea of how unlikely, both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who were born after Dante, have no direct descendants.

Since Dante died in 1321 in Florence, aged 56, almost 694 years have passed. But Alighieri shares more with his illustrious ancestor than just a name. His 63-year-old face bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous death mask made of Dante's face – a fact The Local carefully avoids pointing out. 

“There was a time in my life during my younger days when being his relative really irritated me. I'd say or do something and people would presume I'd said or done that thing only because I was his descendent. It was terribly annoying.”

It's easy to see how it might have been: relatives like Dante cast a long shadow. Firstly, his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is considered a masterpiece of world literature. For those not acquainted with it, the story tracks the poet on an imagined journey through heaven, hell and purgatory.

Not only that, Dante is considered as the father of the modern Italian language, having chosen to write not in Latin - as was common at the time - but in his vernacular Tuscan dialect. This choice had profound consequences for writers who followed and is often cited as the main reason Tuscan dialect became the basis for the modern Italian language. Talk about a lot to live up to.

“There's no comparison between me and him,” Alighieri sighs. “In reality, we're all descendants of somebody through no fault or merit of our own.”

But perhaps he is being too harsh on himself.

While he can never hope to be as famous as his ancestor, Alighieri has enjoyed a noteworthy career as an astronomer.

He was the director of the Galilleo telescope – Italy's largest – on the Spanish island of La Palma. He has published an impressive number of academic articles: mostly about other galaxies, and while he may not have journeyed through the underworld and heaven, he did once ride his beloved motorbike from Italy to Beijing.

After spending part of his youth resenting the Dante connection, Alighieri has come to embrace it. Recently, he was the guest of honour at a 'Dante marathon' event in Naples, which was organized to celebrate the poet's 750th year.

Such is the popular appeal Dante still holds, that for a 48-hour period thousands of Italians got together across the city in order to share the words of their most famous writer as part of a non-stop reading event.

Dante was born on June 1st 1265 and similar events will be held up and down the country over the next few months to mark the 750th year since his birth.

Alighieri admitted to only having read The Divine Comedy at school because – like all Italian school children – he was forced to spend a year studying each part.

Off the top of his head, he only knows one passage which he holds dearly. “It's the opening to Canto XVI of Paradise,” he explains before reeling off the lines in musical and slightly baffling, archaic Italian.

“My father gave me these words, handwritten on a bookmark when I was a child,” he explains.

The lines in question are an imagined a discourse between Dante and his own ancestor, a Florentine nobleman named Cacciaguida. Dante writes that a noble name is only kept noble by the actions of those who inherit it: words that resonated with a young Alighieri. 

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“It's as though Dante was telling me how to deal with the issue of my own lineage,” he says.

Two Alighieris born into two very different Italy's...but what would Dante have made of the country 750 years after his birth?

“He was a critic wasn't he? I think he would have found plenty of things to criticize in Italy today,” Alghieri jokes.

Italy is proud of Dante, but how much do we actually know about him? Here are some of the strangest facts about the famous poet:

Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

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