Dante Alighieri; author of The Divine Comedy, Father of the Italian Language, philosopher, theologian, statesman. In my previous post, I make the point that to truly understand Italian and Italian-American culture you need to understand Dante. That post focuses on Dante the poet, the author of The Divine Comedy. As important as his epic poem may be, however, there is much more to him than just this one work. His contributions to our culture exceed his poetry. In this post, I focus on some of those other aspects of his life. The most important being his title, Father of the Italian Language. To appreciate the importance of this title, however, we need to discuss how the language evolved.
Prior to 1612, the year the first Italian dictionary was published, you could not really claim that there was any such thing as an Italian language. The regions had their own regional languages, often incorrectly referred to as Italian dialects. Technically, dialects are descendants of a common language. We can see English dialects, for example, by comparing how English is spoken in London, New York, and Alabama. Each is a sibling of a common parent, English. With Italian, prior to the first standard Italian dictionary, there was no Italian language that was a parent of what was spoke in each of the regions. Therefore, you could not really claim that these were Italian dialects.
These languages evolved from vulgar, or common, Latin. You see, during the time of the Romans there were two forms of Latin; the vulgar which was informal, used in common communication, and formal classical which was used by the literate when writing. This was the serious stuff for official documents and creating literature. Since it was written using strict rules of grammar, it was relatively consistent throughout the Latin-speaking world. Vulgar Latin, however, was spoken with no real grammatical rules. Once the empire collapsed, the words people used and the ways in which they used them was dependent on the customs of the region. Think of the word for a carbonated beverage in the United States. Some say soda, others pop, and others still soda pop. Eventually, the way in which each region spoke evolved into separate languages. If we are to consider them dialects at all, they would be dialects of Latin. These regional languages were thought by the intelligentsia to be too base, too common, too vulgar if you will, to be worthy of writing serious literature.
This was the state of language in Italy when Dante, who saw things differently, came along. In 1302, Dante wrote De Vulgari Eloquentia in which he defends the eloquence of the common language. To Dante, it did not make sense that literature should be held in the prison of Latin making it inaccessible to most of the Italian people. He then went on to prove his case by writing in the Florentine dialect what has become the greatest work of Western literature, The Divine Comedy. His work, along with the works of the other two gems of the Italian literary crown – Plutarch and Boccaccio – so distinguished the Florentine dialect from the others spoken in Italy, that it was adopted as the official Italian language. Ernst Plugram, the famed linguist, has said “I should venture to say that without Dante, at least Tuscan would have no greater chance than Roman or Neapolitan or Lombard…I should not for a moment believe that Tuscan made Dante as some scholars seem to think, but that on the contrary, Dante made Tuscan into Italian.” Note that while Plugram also refers to Plutarch and Boccaccio, great poets in their own right, it was Dante who first defended the common Italian language as appropriate for literature. It is Dante, therefore, who has earned the title, Father of the Italian Language.
In our world of mass communication and the ubiquity of the English language, it may be difficult to relate to a society where people in the next town or shire speak differently than we do. We may not appreciate the impact a common language had on the very existence of Italy as a nation. We generally accept that nations are the natural state in which people have lived throughout history, but this is incorrect. Nations are relatively modern constructs that are based on a common language and culture that bind people together. For most of human history, language and culture were regional leading to a regional identity, not some national structure. In defining a common Dante brought Italians a step closer to a single national identity.
More than just language, nations need a common culture. Dante also forged new paths to a national culture with his political writing. Dante recognized the source of Italy’s disorder and corruption was the factionalism in part promoted by the machinations of the Catholic church to gain and retain power. Dante’s solution, described in De Monarchia, was an empire in which the church and the state were separate. While an emperor based in Rome would be the civil authority, the church would provide spiritual guidance. Dante understood that the allure of power along with its corrupting influence would prevent the church from fulfilling its mission of leading souls to Christ.
Dante’s thinking made him an icon of Italian nationalism. From the Risorgimento to the nationalism of the early twentieth century, to even the Fascists Dante has been used in the promotion of the Italian state. At various times his work has been used, and at times abused, for different purposes, during the Risorgimento used to make unification more popular, after unification to promote a more secular nation-state, and during the early 1900’s to support Italian imperialism. His work is so ingrained into the psyche of Italianità that he has been key in the formation of not just the Italian state, but the very character of the Italian people.
It is unfortunate that he is often overlooked by Italian-Americans. As noted in my previous post spaghetti has entered many homes where the name Dante is never pronounced. For those of us who are Italian-American, or for those who simply love the Italian culture, we need to understand Dante more. In order to fully embrace our Italianità, we must embrace Dante.
For more on Dante see my book; Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American
 Pulgram, Ernst, Tongues of Italy, Prehistory and History, Greenwood Publishing 1978, pg. 60