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CULTURE

Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

Italy is very proud of Dante degli Alghieri - you can just call him Dante - but who was he and how much do we actually know about him?

Ten strange things you never knew about Dante
A Dante mural in his hometown of Florence. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

He had a wife and four kids

A lot of Dante’s work is devoted to Beatrice, a woman he met aged nine and who died young, sending the poet into deep grief. He wrote love sonnets dedicated to her perfection and in the Divine Comedy, it’s Beatrice in angel form who guides him through Paradise and to God.

It all sounds pretty romantic – until you discover he had a wife and four kids back home, who were probably not best pleased at the fact they don’t get so much as a mention in his famous epic. Dante married Gemma Donati after being betrothed to her at the age of 12, and they had four children together: Jacopo, Pietro, Giovanni, and Antonia, who later became a nun, coincidentally adopting the name Sister Beatrice.

Dante in a painting by Raphael, c.1510

He was a physician, politician and soldier

Thought all Dante did was sit around writing poetry? Think again – Dante actually led a very active life.

He trained as a physicist and joined the guild of apothecaries, though he only did this to further his political career. Dante held various public offices throughout his time in Florence, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino against Arezzo.

He was given a death sentence and only pardoned in 2008

Dante lived in a time when his hometown, Florence, was going through political turmoil and in-fighting.

When a rival faction gained control of the city, they exiled the poor guy from his hometown for barratry, which Dante insisted was just a cover-up for political persecution. All his properties were confiscated and he was issued with a sentence of being burnt at the stake if he ever returned.

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

It wasn’t until 2008 that Florence’s city council decided it was time to let it go, and they passed a motion officially pardoning their most famous resident.

His bones went missing for centuries

Dante was still in exile when he died of malaria, and was buried at a church in Ravenna, where he had been living at the time. Florence later decided they wanted to bury Dante in their own city, where they built him a spectacular tomb. Michelangelo and even Pope Leo X campaigned for the poet’s remains to be returned to his hometown, but the sneaky Ravenna monks simply sent an empty coffin, having found a hiding place in a cloister wall for Dante’s bones.

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

These were not discovered until 1865 by accident during construction works, and were re-buried in the Ravenna mausoleum – though they were moved during the Second World War out of fear the tomb would get damaged in the bombing.


The plaque commemorating Dante’s burial site during World War II. Photo: By Flying RussianCC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

Dante had a great memory

There’s a spot in Florence, currently marked by a plaque, where Dante supposedly liked to sit and write his love poems about Beatrice while watching the construction of the Duomo. According to anecdote, he was once asked by a passerby what he ate for breakfast. “Eggs,” replied Dante.

A year later, the same man walked past Dante again, sitting on his favourite rock, and tested the poet’s already notorious memory. “How?” asked the man, to which Dante quickly responded: “With salt.”

He was famous for telling the truth

Yes, that’s the same Dante who swears several times that his journey through the afterlife literally took place. Truth is a big theme in his Divine Comedy and he repeatedly begs his readers to believe him, most notably right before he and the dead Roman poet Virgil jump on the back of a half-man, half-snake monster, which dutifully carries them down to the eighth circle of hell.

We’re supposed to believe this, not just because of his vivid descriptions, but also because the historic Dante had a reputation as an honest man through his work as a public official. One legend states that, when exiled from Florence, a disguised Dante was stopped by authorities asking if he knew where Dante was. Despite his life being at stake, Dante was apparently so determined not to fib that he tricked them by saying: “When I was coming down the road, he did not pass me.”

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

You’ve probably quoted Dante without realizing

If you speak Italian, that is. Considered the ‘father of the Italian language’, Dante and his Divine Comedy paved the way for writing literature in the vernacular language, which had previously been considered too lowly. 

Historical word frequency lists show us that approximately 15 percent of the vocabulary in use in standard Italian today can be traced back to the Florentine poet. That includes neologisms (words he invented) and even several complete phrases which survive today, such as ‘vendetta allegra’ (roughly ‘sweet revenge’).

And you’ve definitely heard him being quoted

Dante’s Divine Comedy has spawned many English translations ranging from the erudite to slang versions, comic books, TV and radio adaptations and even video games. Novelists including Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Lemony Snicket and Philip Pullman are among the many who have found inspiration between the pages of Dante’s books.

And aside from the film adaptations, it’s also referenced or quoted in Ice Age, Hannibal and Ghostbusters II, and in TV series such as Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, The Sopranos and Law & Order. But perhaps most impressive homage of all is the asteroid belt 2999 Dante, named after the poet.

He was ahead of his time

Portrait of Dante (Study), Ilya Repin, 1897

Anyone who has attempted to tackle his lengthy works might not think of Dante as a ‘modern’ writer, but in several respects he was extremely advanced.

Aside from being one of the first Italian writers to move away from using Latin for literature, he was one of the first to come up with an idea of a Limbo, where noble and innocent people who were not Christian could rest in peace. Before this, it was generally thought that unborn babies and pagans ended up in hell. Dante was also tolerant towards other religions, for example placing Muslim leader Saladin in Limbo.

However, the work was written in a medieval context and for this reason Gherush92, an Italian NGO, has campaigned for it to be banned from the classroom due to perceived racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Three was his lucky number

You may already know that Dante’s most famous work is split into three parts (one for each section of the afterlife), and each of these is split into 33 verses or ‘canti’ – plus an introductory one to make 100 in total, the ‘perfect number’.

But the number three crops up much more often than that; his rhyme scheme, terza rima, revolves around it and the Holy Trinity has infernal counterparts in the three rivers of hell, three kinds of sins punished (each with three subdivisions), a three-headed beast guarding the Circle of Gluttonous and in many other instances.

Bonus fact: Dante was a Gemini

Dante tells us this early on in Inferno. If you’re keen on astrology, that means he’s independent, witty and imaginative, but restless – sounds about right for the guy who went on a journey through hell and wrote a book about it.
 

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CULTURE

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Spooky traditions haven’t really caught on in Italy where strong Catholic beliefs mean the country has its own way of honoring the dead, says Silvia Marchetti.

Why Italy’s All Saints and All Souls days have nothing to do with Halloween

Many Italians gathered last night to celebrate Halloween dressed as ghosts, witches, skeletons and zombies. Hotels, restaurants and pubs organised Halloween-themed events with spooky decor and music.

Each year I’m shocked by how Halloween penetrates Italian culture even though it’s a foreign import from Anglo-Saxon countries.

The real Italian festivities this week are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti) celebrated on November 1st to remember all saints and martyrs during Christian history, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, known elsewhere as All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the beloved deceased ones, mainly family members but also close friends.

While November 1st is a public holiday (and many Italians exploit it as an excuse for a ponte, a long weekend), November 2nd is a working day.

The entire week preceding All Saints’ Day sees cars queuing up to go to the cemetery, people rush to bring flowers and a few prayers to the tombs of deceased loved ones, and streets are often jammed.

For many Catholic Italians, it’s actually the only time of the year they remember to honor their dead, as if ‘imposed’ by their religion. A bit like going to mass on Sundays; if they fail to do so, they might feel guilty or even fear punishment from above. 

After spending an hour or so at the graveyards – places Italians usually tend to avoid – on All Saints Day, after the spiritual duties are accomplished, they might gather for lunch, bringing cakes and pastries.

People in Italy bring flowers to their loved ones’ graves on All Saints’ Day. Photo: JORGE GUERRERO / AFP

In some southern regions so-called ossa di morto (bones of the dead) pumpkin-filled biscuits and raisin pan dei morti (bread of the dead) are bought, while in the north chestnut pies are baked. 

Ognissanti is a very private event that usually involves little or restricted get-togethers, brothers and close relatives share the graveyard trip but then each goes back home, with little feasting on fine food. 

Catholics don’t have any macabre ritual involving leaving an empty place at the table for a spirit to join us. It is a moment of sadness but also of joy because our dead loved ones have ascended to heaven and are all there waiting for us. It’s the celebration of love, rebirth over doom, and the promise of a future reunion with them in heaven. 

That is why November 1st and November 2nd in Italy really have nothing to do with Halloween, which I call the ‘culture of the grave’ and the celebration of ‘scary death as an end to itself’. 

Even though they may partake in Halloween as a mere consumeristic party, Italians are mainly Catholic and believers do not believe in the darkness of the night, in the damnation of the grave, in being haunted by wicked spirits who long to take vengeance on us, in witches flying on broomsticks and terrifying zombies coming out of tombs. 

Pumpkin is something we occasionally eat as a pasta filling; it’s certainly not a decorative spooky element.

Halloween, which in my view is imbued with paganism and the Protestant belief in an evil superior being and naughty spirits ready to strike down on sinners instead of forgiving them, is celebrated in Italy but lacks a religious or spiritual nature. It’s like the Chinese celebrating Christmas for the sake of buying gifts and acting western. 

Halloween deeply affected my childhood. I’m Roman Catholic and I attended Anglo-American schools abroad where Catholics were a minority and each year I drove my mom crazy by forcing her to sew me a ghost or witch dress. She’d take a bed blanket and cut open three holes for the eyes and nose, annoyed that I should be influenced by a celebration that was not part of my tradition. 

In elementary and middle school my foreign teachers would make us decorate classrooms with spooky drawings, bake skeleton-themed biscuits for trick-or-treating, and tell us ghost stories in the dark to create an eerie vibe. 

Once we were also taken to visit a cemetery and when I told my dad about it he got annoyed and did all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. 

Halloween has always freaked me out but I did not want to miss out on the ‘fun’ for fear of being looked down upon by other kids. And so I too started believing in vampires, zombies, and ghosts, particularly at night when I was alone in my bed and had to turn on the light. Still today, and I am much, much older, I have a recurring nightmare of an ugly evil witch who torments me and chases me up the staircase.

I soon learned that if for Anglo-Saxons a trip to the graveyard is a jolly event, like a stroll in the park, and ‘graveyard tourism’ is on the rise, for Catholic Italians it is a place accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. 

Last time I visited Ireland the guide took us to a monumental graveyard with tombs as high as cars, and lavishly decorated. A few of my Italian male friends refused to enter and spent the whole day scratching their genitals to ward off jinx.

Halloween night is said to be when the barrier between the worlds of ghosts and humans comes down. But Italians don’t usually like to ‘party’ and mingle with the dead or other spirits. We instead honor the deceased with our prayers but the boundary remains firm in place: in fact, this is why our graveyards are placed outside of city centres. 

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