In our final look at language maestros, we are heading back to the Middle Ages to discover the works, and impacts, of Dante.
Dante’s depictions of hell, purgatory, and heaven make an episode of Supernatural seem like going on a teacup ride at The Magic Kingdom. Or perhaps we are just easily scared… let’s take a look!
Dante, or Durante degli Alighieri, was born in 1265 in Florence. Dante had many varied roles during his life, with statesman, poet, language theorist, and political theorist listed as among his main occupations. But his work as a writer is easily the most enduring, having influenced Italian society and paved the way for many a writer inspired by his mastery of words.
Perhaps one of the most crucial things to consider about Dante is the way he reached the masses. Up until the publication of his Divine Comedies, most literacy was seen as the entertainment of only the elite, written entirely in Latin and therefore only accessible by those who were affluent and educated. By writing in Latin, Dante not only achieved reaching a wider audience, but actually helped in the shaping of the Italian language at the same time.
Dante himself was incredibly well-studied, taking an interest in many subjects that included Tuscan poetry, painting and music, Latin classical works such as Homer, and a wide and varied study of theology, politics and philosophy. These studies had an impact on Dante’s work, but not as great an impact as did his exile; much of Dante’s writing was penned after 1301 when he left Florence after falling out of political favor, despite having until then held many important public posts. Reading Dante’s work often feels as though we are hearing a dramatization of his own personal journey; his experiences bleed through the pages as you read them giving you a snippet of what it must have been like for him to be stripped of so much of his identity and heritage.
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The Divine Comedy
Even those who have never read any of Dante’s works are probably familiar with the phrase Dante’s Inferno, which is the first section of Dante’s most well-known work, the epic poem that is The Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is an allegorical tale of life after death through the various stages of a Christian afterlife, as an attempt to dissuade the general populace from sin and instead seek a more pious life for fear of what could become of them if they do not.
The journey through the tale is lengthy, through nine circles of hell, followed by Lucifer’s level at the bottom; nine rings of purgatory, the Garden of Eden at its peak; and the nine celestial bodies of heaven, ending in the empyrean, the highest stage of heaven, where God himself resides.
With graphic imagery and many parallels to everyday life, it is easy to see why this work has gone on to influence so many others, including John Milton and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Dante even had an impact on the form and structure of poetry itself; the terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, was first used by Dante himself and is viewed as his invention.
La Vita Nuova
Dante produced many works throughout his career, including Convivio (The Banquet) and De vulgari eloquentia (On the Eloquence of Vernacular). But next to The Divine Comedy perhaps the next most famous is La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Perhaps it is because we all love a good tragedy; this work contains a series of love poems written by Dante for Beatrice Portinari, and their story is the unrequited love story to end all love stories. With Dante entering into an arranged marriage with Gemma di Manetto Donati and his love for Gemma immortalised on paper only after her death in 1290, it is enough to make even the most cynical among us weep.
Dante has been called the Father of the Italian language, il Sommo Poeta (‘the supreme poet’), and is considered one of the greatest poets of world literature. The Divine Comedy has endured as an important piece of literature for more than 500 years since its first publication as simply La commedia in 1472. Today, the influence is wide and far reaching. From mentions in DC/Vertigo comics’s Lucifer, nods to the poem in numerous video games including Final Fantasy and Fallout, and dramatisation of the book in the 2007 film Dante’s Inferno as just a few examples; in fact there are so many films, books, poems, pieces of architecture and art that have been influenced by Dante’s work in some way, that to acknowledge them all would take us probably just as long as the length of the journey in The Divine Comedy itself.
Dante’s words, or rather the translation of his words have been woven into our speech until we use, or read his phrases without probably even knowing their origin. “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” – Dante. “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery,” – also Dante. Why not see how many quotes that you know and use originate from Dante as well?
All good things must come to an end…
A quote by Chaucer, another of our most treasured writers who was influenced by Dante, seems a good way to bring our look at language maestros to an end. Or perhaps we could use Dante himself again; “From a little spark may burst a flame.” Because we hope we have, if not inspired, then nudged you into at least considering expanding your literary horizons. The language we know and use today has been shaped by some true masters of language. Their legacy is all around us, in the books we read and the films we enjoy, and the words we speak to one another. Use them well, and thank you for joining us on this literary journey!