by Cinzia Dugo
Discovering some of the secrets in the life of Dante
"In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me
in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct:....".
I must confess, I would be really surprised to still find people who, after shyly reading these words, could look at me with an uncertain or even bewildered expression because they have not recognized these famous verses. Nor, on the other hand, would I think it a particularly titanic enterprise to try and remember or even improvise other extracts from some of his better known and now proverbial verses ("All hope abandon, ye who enter here [...], Love, that denial takes from none beloved [...]), from the Divine Comedy quoted above, or to include some biographical notes on its famous author.
In fact nowadays almost everyone agrees that Durante Alighieri (Dante was only an abbreviation of his name) was responsible for having given a name and an identity to Italian literature. However, should we decide to overlook most of the better-known information about this greatly loved - and hated - son of "mother Florentia", how should we reply to the following question? Do we know really everything about this Tuscan poet who has come to symbolize Italian lyric poetry? In the hopes of satisfying his many admirers and curiousity in general, I intend to reply to this question by including various anecdotes and odd stories about him, partly in order to learn more about the poet, his work and the social environment in which he lived, and partly to give a more humane aspect to that austere and cantankerous profile, in a period which often tends to be mythicized, though we are perhaps somewhat influenced by the less than worldly aura of the three parts of the Comedy.
We could start by recalling an episode that took place after his death; this is certainly in tune with the ultraworldly environment described during the famous imaginary journey in Dante's poem which is full of moral and allegorical significance. The famous writer, Boccaccio, who was also a great admirer of Dante, tells us about the singular discovery of the last thirteen cantos of the Paradise, found inside the poet's house, which is thought to have once stood behind Piazza del Duomo (today we can visit the three floors of the Museum of the House of Dante in Via S. Margherita at n.1, built at the beginning of this century).
Apparently one night his son Iacopo (who, more than anyone else, had, until that moment, been searching everywhere among his father's papers for the missing cantos), had a dream about Dante who appeared before him dressed in white and suffused with light; taking his son by the hand, he led him into his study and mysteriously pointed towards a place on the wall. Iacopo started awake and, unable to sleep again after this dream because he was convinced of its illogical importance, immediately started looking for the last cantos of the divine poem; he discovered a niche in the precise place indicated by his father, containing several dusty rolls of parchment, partly covered in mildew. The mystery around the documents, which had also induced the Alighieri family to believe that the last part of the Paradise was lost, was finally resolved: with trembling hands his son started to read the documents and later, still deeply moved, made a copy of them to send to Cangrande della Scala; these were indeed the last precious manuscripts that were to allow us to discover the "divine ending" of Dante's most famous, though not necessarily most important, work.
Portrait of Dante
The oneiric nuances that characterize this story about the secret niche have a very worldly aspect in the light of events, for the man described here did not live a spiritual life at all and, if the information supplied by certain documents is to be believed, much of what has been said about him is disputable. Here I am talking about his moral integrity which was constantly threatened by the frequent dealings (from 1297 to 1301) that the Alighieri brothers, thanks to their difficult financial difficulties, were forced to maintain with money lenders, creditors and legal problems; I am also talking about his matrimonial fidelity, which was precarious for about forty years as we can see from a legal deed that mentions a certain Giovanni, a witness in a court case, who was thought to be the illegitimate son of the Florentine poet. Dante does not just owe his fame to the Divine Comedy but also to several minor works which we mention below: the Vita Nuova (1293), Convivio, De Vulgari Eloquentia (1304-1306), De Monarchia (1310) and the Quaestio aquae et terrae, which he read in Verona in 1320.
I am certainly not exaggerating when I say that Dante's life was totally dedicated to knowledge, as we can see from his many interests; however this knowledge was never actually recognized officially by the presentation of a degree, a document that Dante hoped to attain in Paris, the capital of international culture. Unfortuntely, in spite of his brilliance, the poet never managed to complete his studies. Why? It may seem strange, but the problem was very similar to those of the present day; it was simply a sorry question of money, the hard cash needed to pay the assembly that was supposed to give the poet his coveted academic qualification. As we have already seen, many anecdotes or strange episodes were told about this Florentine writer during his lifetime and, even after his death, which took place on September 14th 1321, the poet seems to have been involved in some rather unusual events. On his death, Dante's remains were buried in the Church of San Francesco in Ravenna; in the 16th century, the city of Florence, thanks to Leo X, obtained permission from the Emilian city to take the precious body back home.
However, when it was opened, the tomb was found to be empty. No-one seemed to know whether the body had been stolen or who was responsible. The citizens of Ravenna were unable to explain the mystery until 1865, when a casket containing the human bones of Dante was discovered during the restoration work on the Franciscan cloister; that they really were Dante's remains was attested by a letter dated 1677, which explained that the body had been hidden away by the monks who had not wanted to return it to its native city. Therefore, if we want to visit the body of the great poet today, we have to go to the city of Ravenna, instead of to Florence where, perhaps too late, a great - but empty - funeral monument was placed in Santa Croce in his memory. The destiny of one of the most famous pilasters of Italian literature was undoubtedly tragic because, in spite of the many political differences, he only hoped for a little respect and recognition from his city which has never really acknowledged his worth, not even now, so many centuries later.