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A new discovery at Verona University could change the story of Dante’s life

An academic study has thrown the life story of Italy's national poet, Dante Alighieri, into question.

A new discovery at Verona University could change the story of Dante's life
A statue of Dante in Verona, Italy. File photo.

Examinations of a letter dating from 1312 at Verona University have shown that the great poet, known as the father of the Italian language, may have been living in Verona for much longer than previously thought.

Academics are convinced that the letter, previously thought to have been written by the Lord of Verona Cangrande della Scala to Emperor Henry VII in 1312, is in fact “very likely” to have been written by Dante himself.

Analysis of the writing and the phrasing used in the letter has revealed similarities with Dante’s work. This may have huge biographical importance, according to Paolo Pellegrini, Professor of Philology and Linguistics at the University of Verona.

The letter, which has been published before as part of a body of “good writing” from the period, was a particularly sensitive one, Pellegrini explained. Its careful drafting “could not have been entrusted to just anyone.”

The letter spoke of serious disagreements and near calamities in the region, explaining Cangrande's concerns to the Emperor and imploring him to restore peace and harmony before things worsened.

“It was therefore a very delicate missive,” Pellegrini told Repubblica. “It was logical that he’d want to use the best pen available. This could be Dante's.”

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


Photo: Meryddian – CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia

He said more tests will need to be done on the letter to confirm the theory. But if correct, it would make Verona Dante's second home – the city where he spent the most time after Florence.

“The hypotheses that between 1312 and 1316 Dante went to Pisa or Lunigiana may have been made too hastily,” he said.

It also means Cangrande’s role in Dante’s life and work was far more important than historians had previously thought.

“In the summer of 1312 Dante was already in Verona, and if The Monarchy was written at this time, it was written there under the watchful eye of Cangrande,” he says, “the cultural profile of Cangrande himself must be re-examined.”

The new theory matches up with the writing of Leonardo Bruni, the last person to have handled Dante's letters.

“Bruni clearly stated that Dante was not in Tuscany in September 1312, when Henry VII prepared the siege of Florence,” said Pellegrini. Bruni also spoke of letters Dante had sent from Verona at the time.

“We now wonder if the stay didn’t last from 1312 to 1320, which would explain the high praise reserved for Cangrande in Paradisio – the highest commendation dedicated by the poet to any living being.”

If so, he says “a whole chapter of Dante's biography will need a robust rewrite.”

READ ALSO: Following in Dante's footsteps: Eight beautiful towns to visit in Italy


Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr
 

HISTORY

‘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.

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