Sauce, Gravy, or Dante? (Part 1)

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In 1954, Giuseppe Prezzolini, Italian author and historian of Italian literature asked; “what is the glory of Dante compared to spaghetti?” He went on to observe “spaghetti has entered many American homes where the name of Dante is never pronounced.” More recently while listening to one of my favorite webcasts, The Italian-American Power Hour, it was noted Italian-Americans have more pride in our culture’s emphasis on family than we have of some other Italian icons such as Dante.  While I admit they are correct, I feel if we are to stay in touch with our heritage it is extraordinarily important that we develop both an understanding of and an appreciation for such cultural treasures.

In the constellation of Italian luminaries, one of the stars that shines the brightest is Dante Alighieri. Whether you are Italian, Italian-American, or of some other heritage, if you wish to truly understand Italian culture and history, especially the period in which Italy transitioned from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, you need to understand Dante.

I am not certain why Dante is not more popular, but I can speculate. Perhaps Dante’s greatest work, The Divine Comedy, is too loaded with references to people and places unknown to most people. Remind me again, who was Farinata degli Uberti? Perhaps Dante’s view that we are who we decide to be is too unforgiving for a society given over to a belief in determinism. Or even, perhaps, Dante’s love of Beatrice is too pure for our cynical world. Despite these possible objections, I would argue that the effort put into understanding The Divine Comedy is well worth the insights gained into Italianità.  However, as monumental a work as The Divine Comedy may be, Dante is so much more than that to Italians as well as world culture.

Dante’s life, his biography, is a fascinating history of the Italy of his time. You see, Dante was born in approximately 1265 in Florence, a city boiling with the intrigues of the papacy’s political battles with the Holy Roman Emperor. The pope was supported by the Guelphs and the Holy Roman Emperor was supported by the Ghibellines. The machinations of these two groups impacted the lives of everyone in the city, especially Dante.

A small stone when put in the right place at the right time, can change the course of mighty rivers. This is what happened in the course of Dante’s life when he was just nine. His father had taken him to a neighbor’s home for a May Day party where he saw Beatrice for the first time. She was eight. Although they were only children, that chance encounter sparked in him a lifelong love. Despite having only met three additional times throughout their lives and never really speaking to one another, Dante held her up as the ideal of beauty and grace.

His love of Beatrice inspired him to write La Vita Nuova (The New Life) which is composed of poetry in honor of Beatrice along with his own commentary on that poetry. As he was writing La Vita Nuova Beatrice died, causing him to prematurely end the work. In his grief, he decided to create something which was more worthy of her memory. He ends La Vita Nuova with the words; “a wonderous vision appeared to me, in which I saw things that made me resolve to speak no further of that blessed lady until I could discuss her in a worthier manner. And I am striving as best I can to reach that goal, as she truly knows.”[1] That work that discusses Beatrice in a worthier manner was The Divine Comedy.

The path from La Vita Nuova to The Divine Comedy, however, was far from straight. The Fates are cruel, not taking pity on Dante for having his heart broken. Through a series of alignments, misalignments, and realignments between the various political factions in Florence Dante found himself exiled from the city. As prophesied in Paradiso 17, Dante found how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs. It was during this exile, that he wrote the work for which he is best known.

Dante never again saw inside the walls of his city. Although overtures had been made that would have enabled him to come back to the Florence, Dante refused to do so until he returned wearing a laurel crown[2]. While I grieve for the injustice of the exile, I cannot help to be a bit grateful for it. As Professors William Cook and Ronald Herzman of the State University of New York, Geneseo noted, The Divine Comedy is a work that could only have been written in exile. If it were not for Dante’s exile we might not have had what is inarguably the greatest work of western literature.

Despite this incredible contribution, as Italians and Italian-Americans we need to go beyond The Divine Comedy. Dante’s love for Beatrice as well as the extraordinary works of literature this love inspired is just one of Dante’s many contributions to Italian culture. He has had a profound impact on the language, art, and history of the Italian people. These other facets of Dante I will explore in the second part of this two-part biography, next week.

Until that time, I ask you, my audience, who are your favorite Italian and Italian-American authors? Who is it that your paesani should be reading and why?

[1] Appelbaum, Stanley, The New Life, Dover Publications Inc. 2006, Page 97.

[2] A laurel crown is often bestowed on poets, as can be seen in images of Dante, Petrarch, and Homer (the poet, not Simpson). The laurel tree is the tree of Apollo, the god of wisdom, artistic creation, poetry, and music. According to legend, Appolo had been pursuing the virgin nymph Daphne with carnal intent. Unwilling to succumb to the god’s advances, she pleaded to the river god Peneus for help who turned her into a laurel tree.

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