Did You Know . . . ?

Because Dan Brown’s newest novel, Inferno, deals with Dante’s Inferno I have decided to dedicate this edition of Did You Know . . . ? to interesting trivia about Dante, Florence, and The Divine Comedy.Dante

Florence, Italy was torn by political strife during a long period of time which included the lifespan of Dante Alighieri (c. 1265 – 1321).  This was not simply a case of political differences like that between the U.S. Democrats and Republicans, but strife that included warfare and exile from Florence for life.  First the Guelphs and the Ghibellines fought, and then, after the Guelphs won, they split into two groups – the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs – and fought each other.  First the White Guelphs ran the Black Guelphs out of Florence, then the Black Guelphs ran the White Guelphs out.  Ultimately, Dante, a White Guelph, found himself exiled for life from his beloved birthplace.

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In exile Dante wrote his magnum opus La Commedia (The Comedy) a 100 canto poem in three parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.  The adjective Divina was added by others later, so that it is now known as La Divina Commedia.  In it, Dante who has lost his way in life – spiritually speaking – is led through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil, the Roman writer who composed The Aeneid.  Dante revered Virgil to the point where this non-Christian is sent to guide the pilgrim through two of the three realms of the afterlife.

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The Catholic Church teaches that we can have our sins forgiven, but that we still must suffer for them for a while after death.  Then, and only then, can we enter Heaven.  The place where we suffer is called Purgatory.

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Since Virgil was not a Christian, he was unable to lead the pilgrim through Paradise.  Instead, the pilgrim was escorted by a woman named Beatrice.  Beatrice was a young girl from Florence who Dante, in his youth, saw a few times, and possibly spoke two on one occasion.  However, Dante developed an obsession for this woman that lasted throughout his life.

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Dante lived in different cities during his exile, and died in Ravenna in 1321 shortly after completing The Divine Comedy.  He was buried there, and remains there to this day much to the displeasure of Florence.  The people of Florence feel that he should be buried there because that was where he was born and raised.  The people of Ravenna contend that since Florence exiled him for life and he died in Ravenna, he is forever theirs.  It is interesting to note that Dante has two tombs one in Ravenna which contains his remains, and an unoccupied tomb waiting for him in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.  As you can see from the photos below, his Florentine tomb is much more elaborate that his tomb in Ravenna.Tomb in RavennaTomb in Florence

Note the photograph of the Basilica of Santa Croce below.  Santa Croce is Italian for Holy Cross, but there is no cross on the front of the Basilica.  Instead you see a Star of David which is a symbol of Judaism.  Why is it there?  Because it was designed by a Jewish architect named Niccolo Matas.Basilica of Santa Croce

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Italy was made up of many city-states during Dante’s time, and there was no unified Italian language.  Even today many Italians speak a local dialect as well as the official form of Italian.  Most works of Dante’s time were written in Latin, but Dante was writing for the people, not the scholars, so he wrote it in the vernacular of the people of Tuscany where Florence is located.  The language that became known as Italian is based heavily on the Tuscan dialect that Dante used to write his Divine Comedy.

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The word “comedy” as used in the title of Dante’s work does not mean a work that is meant to be funny.  It means “something that ends well.”  So the poem begins with the pilgrim being lost and desperate, and ends with his recognition of the right way to live.

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There are many translations of The Divine Comedy including those by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Ciardi, Mark Musa, Allen Mandelbaum, Clive James, and even the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey).

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An article about the recent translation by Clive James gives you a feel for a few of the problems encountered in translating Dante’s Italian masterpiece into English, and in part explains why there are so many translations in print.

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Any translation of The Divine Comedy must, I repeat must, include extensive footnotes since most of the people mentioned in it are little-known figures today.  Also, there is a lot of symbolism that you will not catch without footnotes.

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Dorothy L. Sayers said that To know Dante and the Comedia only through Inferno is like knowing the city of Paris only through its sewer system.”  What she meant is that Inferno is the darkest and bleakest part of the three part poem.  If you stop there, you will miss the hope-filled Purgatorio and the uplifting Paradiso.

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