Meet Dante Alighieri’s stargazing Italian descendant

To honour the 750th year since the birth of Italy's most famous poet, The Local met his great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandson.

Meet Dante Alighieri's stargazing Italian descendant
Dante's descendant Sperello di Serego Alighieri (L) and the poet's deathmask. Photo: Sperello Di Serego Algieri/Digitalmamma824/flickr

Sperello di Serego Alighieri is his name and he hasn't spent much time dwelling on his family history.

In fact, he has spent most of his life staring out of observatory domes at distant galaxies. He is an astronomer, currently living and working at the Arcetri observatory in Dante's old stomping ground of Florence.

“People ask me about my name a lot,” Alighieri tells The Local. “They are always pretty shocked when I tell them I'm his relative. So much time has passed that most people don't believe it's even possible.”

Impossible it is not: but it it is highly unlikely. To give you an idea of how unlikely, both Shakespeare and Cervantes, who were born after Dante, have no direct descendants.

Since Dante died in 1321 in Florence, aged 56, almost 694 years have passed. But Alighieri shares more with his illustrious ancestor than just a name. His 63-year-old face bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous death mask made of Dante's face – a fact The Local carefully avoids pointing out. 

“There was a time in my life during my younger days when being his relative really irritated me. I'd say or do something and people would presume I'd said or done that thing only because I was his descendent. It was terribly annoying.”

It's easy to see how it might have been: relatives like Dante cast a long shadow. Firstly, his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is considered a masterpiece of world literature. For those not acquainted with it, the story tracks the poet on an imagined journey through heaven, hell and purgatory.

Not only that, Dante is considered as the father of the modern Italian language, having chosen to write not in Latin – as was common at the time – but in his vernacular Tuscan dialect. This choice had profound consequences for writers who followed and is often cited as the main reason Tuscan dialect became the basis for the modern Italian language. Talk about a lot to live up to.

“There's no comparison between me and him,” Alighieri sighs. “In reality, we're all descendants of somebody through no fault or merit of our own.”

But perhaps he is being too harsh on himself.

While he can never hope to be as famous as his ancestor, Alighieri has enjoyed a noteworthy career as an astronomer.

He was the director of the Galilleo telescope – Italy's largest – on the Spanish island of La Palma. He has published an impressive number of academic articles: mostly about other galaxies, and while he may not have journeyed through the underworld and heaven, he did once ride his beloved motorbike from Italy to Beijing.

After spending part of his youth resenting the Dante connection, Alighieri has come to embrace it. Recently, he was the guest of honour at a 'Dante marathon' event in Naples, which was organized to celebrate the poet's 750th year.

Such is the popular appeal Dante still holds, that for a 48-hour period thousands of Italians got together across the city in order to share the words of their most famous writer as part of a non-stop reading event.

Dante was born on June 1st 1265 and similar events will be held up and down the country over the next few months to mark the 750th year since his birth.

Alighieri admitted to only having read The Divine Comedy at school because – like all Italian school children – he was forced to spend a year studying each part.

Off the top of his head, he only knows one passage which he holds dearly. “It's the opening to Canto XVI of Paradise,” he explains before reeling off the lines in musical and slightly baffling, archaic Italian.

“My father gave me these words, handwritten on a bookmark when I was a child,” he explains.

The lines in question are an imagined a discourse between Dante and his own ancestor, a Florentine nobleman named Cacciaguida. Dante writes that a noble name is only kept noble by the actions of those who inherit it: words that resonated with a young Alighieri. 

“It's as though Dante was telling me how to deal with the issue of my own lineage,” he says.

Two Alighieris born into two very different Italy's…but what would Dante have made of the country 750 years after his birth?

“He was a critic wasn't he? I think he would have found plenty of things to criticize in Italy today,” Alghieri jokes.

Italy is proud of Dante, but how much do we actually know about him? Here are some of the strangest facts about the famous poet:

Ten strange things you never knew about Dante

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.