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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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LA BELLA VITA

La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

From seeing Italy's best sights for free to avoiding crimes against Italian food, new weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Free Italian museum tickets, Sanremo, and real spaghetti carbonara

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

The cold weather and grey skies mean February is the month when I’m most tempted to stay at home and keep warm, preferably with an Italian hot chocolate. But it’s a shame to stay in when there’s so much to do and see in Italy, even at this time of year.

Carnival season officially kicks off this weekend, bringing much-needed colour and joy to towns and cities across Italy at what would otherwise be a pretty dull time of year. The most famous Carnival of all is of course in Venice, and this year’s edition promises a return to its former grand scale after three years of limited celebrations.

If you’re thinking of attending this year, here’s our quick guide to the events and what to expect:

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

Another reason to get out and about this weekend is Domenica al Museo or ‘free museum Sundays’, when museums and other sites open their doors ticket-free on the first Sunday of every month.

As admission to major historical monuments and museums in Italy often costs upwards of €15 per person, there are big savings to be made and the free Sundays scheme is understandably popular among both tourists and residents.

Free entry applies to hundreds of state-run museums, archaeological parks and monuments, including world-famous sites like the Colosseum, Pompeii, Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, the Reggia di Caserta and Trieste’s Miramare Castle. See further details in our article:

What you need to know about Italy’s free museum Sundays

There is however at least one good reason to stay in and watch some Italian TV: The Sanremo Music Festival returns on Tuesday, February 7th, and it will likely be the main topic of conversation all week.

If you’re a fan of Eurovision, you’re pretty much guaranteed to love it. But some people don’t find the appeal of the show immediately obvious, to put it mildly.

So what is it about the festival that pulls together an entire nation, regardless of whether they fall into the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ camp? We looked at just why this 73-year-old song contest is such an Italian institution.

Why is the Sanremo music festival so important to Italians?

In the latest international Italian food controversy, Italian media reacted with anger and dismay this week to a recipe published in the New York Times for ‘tomato carbonara’, which recommended adding tomato sugo along with the eggs, and replacing pork cheek and pecorino with bacon and parmesan – an adaptation which was described as “provocative”, “disgusting”, and a “declaration of war”.

For anyone who doesn’t want to traumatise their Italian dinner guests or risk sparking a diplomatic incident, here’s the classic recipe plus a look at the rules to follow when making a real Roman-style carbonara:

The ten unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara

However, you might be surprised to hear that adding cream – or tomato – to your carbonara recipe isn’t actually the worst food crime you could commit according to Italians.

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study revealed which of the most common international ‘adaptations’ are seen as most and least offensive.

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

Remember if you’d like to have this weekly newsletter sent straight to your inbox you can sign up for it via Newsletter preferences in “My Account”.

Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]

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