Dante Lives in the Italian Language

May 15, 2015

Dante statue

Viva Dante!

Some 750 years after Dante Alighieri's birth, his words live, not just in Italian literature, but in everyday conversations. A taxi driver in Rome sums up the frenetic bustle of the city in peak tourist season as a bolgia infernale, using Dante’s term for one of the “rotten pockets” within the depths of hell, filled with rogues, hypocrites and thieves.

Trying to explain the two passions of his life—for medicine and for his beautiful wife—my friend Roberto quotes Dante’s description of love so strong that it permits “no loved one not to love.” When I didn’t recognize the allusion, he wrote the line—“amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona”–on a card I keep on my desk. My tutor Alessandra’s first suitor in Rome used the same line from Canto Five of the Inferno to woo her when she was 13.

“What was your galeotto?” our friend Mario asked my husband and me one evening at dinner. Seeing our confusion, off he dashed to retrieve a dog-eared copy of La Divina Commedia from his car and read the full story of Francesca da Rimini, a beautiful young woman forced or tricked into marriage with the brutish Gianciotto Malatesta.

When her husband left her in the care of his handsome brother Paolo, the two “charmed the hours away” by reading together about Galeotto, who had acted as the go-between for the knight Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. When they reached the description of that pair’s first adulterous embrace, Paolo breathed “the tremor of his kiss” on Francesca’s welcoming mouth. As she tells Dante, “That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander.” To this day a galeotto signifies a seductive ploy or whatever brings two lovers together.

In another famous canto, Dante describes Ulysses rallying his men to journey beyond what seemed the utmost limit of human voyaging by reminding them of their noble origins: “You were not made to live like beasts.” Mussolini appropriated this phrase—fatti non foste a viver come bruti—in his bombastic exhortations to restore the glory that was Rome. I’ve heard teachers use it to answer their weary students’ questions of why they had to slog through yet another museum—and friends to justify an impetuous escape to Ponza or Capri to restore the soul.

Words and Expressions

Il Bel Paese –- the beautiful country, now used for Italy, a nation that did not exist in Dante’s day

Senza infamia e senza lode –- without infamy and without praise, not so bad and not so good

Imparadisato –- a word Dante invented to describe being lifted into heaven

Sovramagnificentissimamente –- another Dante invention that aptly describes how he wrote: in a very, very, very magnificent way.

Click here for more Dante-inspired expressions.  

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

Dante's epic came to cinematic life in Italy's first feature film, which debuted in 1911:

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La Passione
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La Bella Lingua