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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death

Dante Alighieri is chiefly remembered as the author of the Divine Comedy and as the father of the Italian language. On the 700th anniversary of his death in the night between September 13 to 14th, 1321, here are five things to know about the titan of world literature.

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

‘Father of Italian language’

Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time – rather than Latin – to write his masterpiece.

The “Divine Comedy”, originally called simply “Comedy”, is an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, published in several stages in the early 14th century.

Its popularity led other medieval Italian authors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, to also write in the vernacular, laying the literary foundations of Italian.

It is no coincidence that the institute for spreading Italian language and culture abroad is called the “Dante Alighieri Society.”

As part of 700th anniversary events this year, Italy is also preparing to open a Museum of the Italian Language in Florence, housed within the Santa Maria Novella church complex.

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

A statue of Dante Alighieri by Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP.
On par with Shakespeare
The “Divine Comedy” is a poem, a personal tale of redemption, a treaty on human virtue, as well as one of the most influential pieces of science fiction.

Its first section, the “Inferno” (Hell) – with its circles of hell wherepunishments are inflicted on those having committed the seven deadly sins – still shapes the way we imagine the afterlife, at least in Christian terms.

British poet T.S. Eliot famously said: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges considered the “Divine Comedy” to be “the best book literature has ever achieved.”

Dante in popular culture

Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers and cartoonists have been inspired by the “Divine Comedy”, particularly the “Inferno”.

These include everyone from Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dali and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to the creators of X-Men comic books and novelist Dan Brown.

 Auguste Rodin’s famous “The Kiss” sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers Dante meets in the second circle of hell.

The “Divine Comedy” was also a key inspiration for Oscar-nominated thriller “Se7en”, for a popular video game (“Dante’s Inferno”), while Dante is quoted in popular TV series such as “Mad Men”.

Bret Easton Ellis’ black comedy “American Psycho” opens with the epigraph “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” – one of the most-used quotes from the “Inferno”.

A mural depicting Dante Alighieri on a storefront shutter in Florence. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Durante, but call me Dante

Like many other greats from Italy’s cultural past – Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo – Dante is usually known only by his first name, which is a diminutive of “Durante.”

He was born in Florence in 1265, exiled in 1302, and he died in Ravenna, on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, on September 13 or 14, 1321.

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

Hailing from a wealthy family, albeit not aristocratic, Dante never worked for a living and dabbled in politics as well as literature, philosophy and
cosmology.

He had at least three children with his wife Gemma Donati, but his lifelong muse was another woman, Beatrice, who appears in the “Divine Comedy” as his guide in heaven.

Dante the politician

Dante was active in politics, serving as one of Florence’s nine elected rulers, or priors, for a regular two-month term in 1300.

At the time, Italian cities were constantly on the verge of civil war between Guelfs, the papal faction, and Ghibellines, who sided with Holy Roman
emperors.

Dante started out as a Guelf, but after being exiled with the indirect help of Pope Boniface VIII, he became increasingly critical of papal encroachment in political affairs.

He was put on trial and banished from Florence after a new regime took over the city and persecuted its old ruling class, and he remained an exile until his death.

In 1302, a judge ordered Dante and his allies to be burnt at the stake if they tried to come back. The sentence was later changed to death by beheading.

In the “Divine Comedy”, the poet takes the opportunity to settle scores with many of his foes, notably reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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