Flat White

Dante Alighieri: a giant of the West and a man for our times

12 September 2021

10:00 AM

12 September 2021

10:00 AM

Tuesday marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet, politician and philosopher. Dante, or as we call him in Italian, il Sommo Poeta (the Supreme Poet), is most famously known for his role in establishing the use of vernacular in literature at a time when most poetry was written in Latin. While he was not the first to do so, this decision by Dante, along with that of his fellow Tuscans Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca (together called the tre corone  –three crowns — of Italian literature), played a pivotal role in their native Tuscan dialect emerging as the modern-day standardised Italian language. Indeed, Dante called the language he wrote in ‘Italian’. Not long after, Geoffrey Chaucer also broke from the ‘Latin-only’ tradition and chose English as a suitable medium for his epic, Canterbury Tales. 

Dante’s most famous work, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), is widely considered the most important poetic work of the Middle Ages and provided much inspiration for Western art. It is divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise). Several English translations exist, perhaps the most famous by the American John Ciardi and Englishwoman Dorothy Sayers. As Sayers writes in the introduction to her translation, the Commedia is an allegory which represents the journey of the soul toward God. In describing the moment of meeting his Creator, he wrote:  

All’alta fantasia qui mancò possa l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. 

At this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe … The love that moves the sun and the other stars. 

 Paradiso, XXXIII, 142, 145

Aside from its literary imagery and beauty, the poem amazes for its penetrating and comprehensive analysis of the problems of Dante’s time. Yet, the parallels with Inferno and the world today are remarkable. The opening three lines of the first Canto could well describe the West’s current general malaise: 

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, 

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura 

ché la diritta via era smarrita. 

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, 

I woke to find myself in a dark wood, 

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. 

As Dante passes through the gate of Hell (Canto III), he notes an inscription ending with the phrase Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate, the most cited translated of which is Ciardi’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. The events of the last 18 months in Australia in particular leave me with the same hopelessness encapsulated by this phrase. 

Dante threw himself energetically into Florentine affairs. He was involved in the Guelf-Ghibelline conflict, the periodic wars between the Papacy (Guelfs) and the power of the Holy Roman Emperor (who, as it has been often said, was neither Roman, nor holy, the Ghibellines).

Dante was a Guelf and following their defeat of the Ghibellines, the Florentine Guelfs marked Dante out for what seemed an honourable and distinguished career, electing him to the governing body of the city, the Priorate, in 1300. However, Dante’s political involvement ended up, as one might say these days, getting him ‘cancelled’. A disastrous party split in the most prosperous and important city of the time developed between the ‘White’ Guelfs, with whom Dante was allied, who wanted less interference from Rome in city affairs, and the ‘Black’ Guelfs, who supported the Pope at the time, Boniface VIII – who for Dante was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Church. 

On 1 November, 1301, Charles of Valois, appointed by the Pope as his ‘peacemaker’, entered Florence with the Black Guelphs, who in the ensuing six days destroyed much of the city and killed many of their enemies. A new Black Guelph government was installed. Dante was falsely accused of corruption and financial wrongdoing by the Black Guelphs for the time that Dante was serving on the Priorate. On 27 January 1302, Dante was ordered to pay a fine of 5000 florins and barred from office. Dante did not pay the fine, in part because he believed he was not guilty and in part because all his assets in Florence had been seized by the Black Guelphs. On 10 March he was thus condemned to perpetual exile; had he returned to Florence without paying the fine, he would have been “burned with fire till he be dead”. 

Dante died in exile in Ravenna in 1321 following a diplomatic mission to Venice. As Sayers recounts, ‘having failed in the mission, its members (including Dante), were refused a ship to carry them back to Ravenna and were thus obliged to make their way home by land along the malaria-infested seaboard. On the journey, Dante was taken with fever and although he struggled back to Ravenna, he rapidly became worse.” Quoting Boccaccio, Sayers adds “on the day whereon the exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated by the Church [14 September]… he rendered up to his Creator his toil-worn spirit”. 

Dante’s legacy on Western tradition cannot be underestimated. His influence led to Italian becoming the literary language in western Europe for several centuries. Indeed, it presently is the fourth most studied language in the world (after English, French and Spanish).  

His writings, as well as inspiring countless works of art, are so much a part of the Western literary canon that they are a fixture on reading lists in liberal arts degrees offered by the world’s most prestigious universities. William Butler Yeats called Dante “the chief imagination of Christendom,” and T.S. Eliot elevated Dante to a pre-eminence shared by only one other poet in the modern world, William Shakespeare: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” On the 600th anniversary of his death, Pope Benedict XV promulgated an encyclical dedicated to the Poet, In preclara Summorum, (Among the many celebrated geniuses) declaring Dante one “of the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast” and the “pride and glory of humanity”. 

Like all the liberal arts, Italian Studies too has been afflicted by progressive dumbing-down and woke crusades. Having taught in the subject for a number of years at the University of Western Australia, I have seen this saddening development first hand. Where Dante and Boccaccio were once integral parts of a major in Italian, these days they receive seeming token attention.  

Worse still, now Dante has been, as we say in Italian, strumentalizzato (exploited) by the wokerati. As part of the commemorations of Dante’s death in Australia, the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies, is offering a premiere screening of Dante as a tool for environmental healing, by Australian poet emeritus and “environmental activist” John Kinsella, to be hosted by the Dante Alighieri Society of South Australia, as part of its “Dante in Australian Literature and in Music” series. 

While such absurdity, alas, these days, should not come as a surprise, it still makes a mockery of the legacy of one of the greatest poets, prose writers, literary theorists, philosophers and political thinkers that ever lived. His criticism of the people of his own city in Canto XV (67-68) of Inferno is just as relevant to the world today:   

Vecchia fama nel mondo li chiama orbi;   

gent’è avara, invidiosa e superba:   

A blind people, and always so reputed, 

Proud, envious, covetous, since times remote. 

Dr Rocco Loiacono is a senior lecturer at Curtin Law School.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Curtin University. 

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