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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death

Dante Alighieri is chiefly remembered as the author of the Divine Comedy and as the father of the Italian language. On the 700th anniversary of his death in the night between September 13 to 14th, 1321, here are five things to know about the titan of world literature.

Five things to know about Dante on the 700th anniversary of his death
Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

‘Father of Italian language’

Dante is credited with helping create the Italian language by using the Tuscan vernacular of his time – rather than Latin – to write his masterpiece.

The “Divine Comedy”, originally called simply “Comedy”, is an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, published in several stages in the early 14th century.

Its popularity led other medieval Italian authors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, to also write in the vernacular, laying the literary foundations of Italian.

It is no coincidence that the institute for spreading Italian language and culture abroad is called the “Dante Alighieri Society.”

As part of 700th anniversary events this year, Italy is also preparing to open a Museum of the Italian Language in Florence, housed within the Santa Maria Novella church complex.

READ ALSO: Italian lawyers seek justice for Dante – 700 years after his death

A statue of Dante Alighieri by Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP.
On par with Shakespeare
The “Divine Comedy” is a poem, a personal tale of redemption, a treaty on human virtue, as well as one of the most influential pieces of science fiction.

Its first section, the “Inferno” (Hell) – with its circles of hell wherepunishments are inflicted on those having committed the seven deadly sins – still shapes the way we imagine the afterlife, at least in Christian terms.

British poet T.S. Eliot famously said: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Argentine writer and bibliophile Jorge Luis Borges considered the “Divine Comedy” to be “the best book literature has ever achieved.”

Dante in popular culture

Generations of writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers and cartoonists have been inspired by the “Divine Comedy”, particularly the “Inferno”.

These include everyone from Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Salvador Dali and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to the creators of X-Men comic books and novelist Dan Brown.

 Auguste Rodin’s famous “The Kiss” sculpture depicts Paolo and Francesca, the adulterous lovers Dante meets in the second circle of hell.

The “Divine Comedy” was also a key inspiration for Oscar-nominated thriller “Se7en”, for a popular video game (“Dante’s Inferno”), while Dante is quoted in popular TV series such as “Mad Men”.

Bret Easton Ellis’ black comedy “American Psycho” opens with the epigraph “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” – one of the most-used quotes from the “Inferno”.

A mural depicting Dante Alighieri on a storefront shutter in Florence. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Durante, but call me Dante

Like many other greats from Italy’s cultural past – Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo – Dante is usually known only by his first name, which is a diminutive of “Durante.”

He was born in Florence in 1265, exiled in 1302, and he died in Ravenna, on Italy’s eastern Adriatic coast, on September 13 or 14, 1321.

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

Hailing from a wealthy family, albeit not aristocratic, Dante never worked for a living and dabbled in politics as well as literature, philosophy and
cosmology.

He had at least three children with his wife Gemma Donati, but his lifelong muse was another woman, Beatrice, who appears in the “Divine Comedy” as his guide in heaven.

Dante the politician

Dante was active in politics, serving as one of Florence’s nine elected rulers, or priors, for a regular two-month term in 1300.

At the time, Italian cities were constantly on the verge of civil war between Guelfs, the papal faction, and Ghibellines, who sided with Holy Roman
emperors.

Dante started out as a Guelf, but after being exiled with the indirect help of Pope Boniface VIII, he became increasingly critical of papal encroachment in political affairs.

He was put on trial and banished from Florence after a new regime took over the city and persecuted its old ruling class, and he remained an exile until his death.

In 1302, a judge ordered Dante and his allies to be burnt at the stake if they tried to come back. The sentence was later changed to death by beheading.

In the “Divine Comedy”, the poet takes the opportunity to settle scores with many of his foes, notably reserving a place in hell for Boniface VIII.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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