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ITALY

Meet Dante Alighieri’s stargazing Italian descendant

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.

Meet Dante Alighieri's stargazing Italian descendant
Dante's descendant Sperello di Serego Alighieri (L) and the poet's deathmask. Photo: Sperello Di Serego Algieri/Digitalmamma824/flickr

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. 

“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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death

Dante Alighieri is chiefly remembered as the author of the Divine Comedy and as the father of the Italian language. On the 700th anniversary of his death in the night between September 13 to 14th, 1321, here are five things to know about the titan of world literature.

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

‘Father of Italian language’

Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time – rather than Latin – to write his masterpiece.

The “Divine Comedy”, originally called simply “Comedy”, is an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, published in several stages in the early 14th century.

Its popularity led other medieval Italian authors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, to also write in the vernacular, laying the literary foundations of Italian.

It is no coincidence that the institute for spreading Italian language and culture abroad is called the “Dante Alighieri Society.”

As part of 700th anniversary events this year, Italy is also preparing to open a Museum of the Italian Language in Florence, housed within the Santa Maria Novella church complex.

READ ALSO: Italian lawyers seek justice for Dante – 700 years after his death

A statue of Dante Alighieri by Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP.
On par with Shakespeare
The “Divine Comedy” is a poem, a personal tale of redemption, a treaty on human virtue, as well as one of the most influential pieces of science fiction.

Its first section, the “Inferno” (Hell) – with its circles of hell wherepunishments are inflicted on those having committed the seven deadly sins – still shapes the way we imagine the afterlife, at least in Christian terms.

British poet T.S. Eliot famously said: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges considered the “Divine Comedy” to be “the best book literature has ever achieved.”

Dante in popular culture

Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers and cartoonists have been inspired by the “Divine Comedy”, particularly the “Inferno”.

These include everyone from Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dali and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to the creators of X-Men comic books and novelist Dan Brown.

 Auguste Rodin’s famous “The Kiss” sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers Dante meets in the second circle of hell.

The “Divine Comedy” was also a key inspiration for Oscar-nominated thriller “Se7en”, for a popular video game (“Dante’s Inferno”), while Dante is quoted in popular TV series such as “Mad Men”.

Bret Easton Ellis’ black comedy “American Psycho” opens with the epigraph “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” – one of the most-used quotes from the “Inferno”.

A mural depicting Dante Alighieri on a storefront shutter in Florence. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Durante, but call me Dante

Like many other greats from Italy’s cultural past – Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo – Dante is usually known only by his first name, which is a diminutive of “Durante.”

He was born in Florence in 1265, exiled in 1302, and he died in Ravenna, on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, on September 13 or 14, 1321.

READ ALSO: Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think

Hailing from a wealthy family, albeit not aristocratic, Dante never worked for a living and dabbled in politics as well as literature, philosophy and
cosmology.

He had at least three children with his wife Gemma Donati, but his lifelong muse was another woman, Beatrice, who appears in the “Divine Comedy” as his guide in heaven.

Dante the politician

Dante was active in politics, serving as one of Florence’s nine elected rulers, or priors, for a regular two-month term in 1300.

At the time, Italian cities were constantly on the verge of civil war between Guelfs, the papal faction, and Ghibellines, who sided with Holy Roman
emperors.

Dante started out as a Guelf, but after being exiled with the indirect help of Pope Boniface VIII, he became increasingly critical of papal encroachment in political affairs.

He was put on trial and banished from Florence after a new regime took over the city and persecuted its old ruling class, and he remained an exile until his death.

In 1302, a judge ordered Dante and his allies to be burnt at the stake if they tried to come back. The sentence was later changed to death by beheading.

In the “Divine Comedy”, the poet takes the opportunity to settle scores with many of his foes, notably reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.

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