Although 756 years have passed since Dante Alighieri’s birth in Florence in May of 1265, his words live, not just in literature, but also on the tongues of contemporary Italians.
On a swerving, heart-stopping ride through Rome, a taxi driver assured me that the traffic couldn’t compare with the frenetic bustle of the city at Christmas. “Una bolgia infernale,” he declared, using Dante’s term for one of the “rotten pockets” within the depths of hell, filled with rabble-rousers, hypocrites and thieves. “Chi sei fatto brutto?” I’ve heard one young brother tease another at a friend’s home, using a line from Canto Eight of the Inferno, “Who are you to look so ugly?”
The better acquainted I became with Italians over the years, the more Dante elbowed his way into our conversations. Describing the two passions of his life—for medicine and for his wife—a doctor in Rome quoted Dante’s description of a love so strong that it permits “no loved one not to love.” When I didn’t recognize the allusion, he wrote the line—“amor, che nullo amato amar perdona” –on a card for me to memorize. Another friend recalls teenage suitors using the same line from Canto Five to win her favor.
“What was your Galeotto?” a composer in Florence asked my husband and me one evening at dinner. Seeing our confusion, off he dashed to retrieve a dog-eared copy of the 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. The day 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 formed to live like beasts.” I’ve overheard teachers use this phrase—fatti non foste a viver come bruti—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.
Dante’s fans extend beyond Italy. Bruce Springsteen, Patty Smith and bands like Radiohead and Nirvana have cited him as an inspiration. They join an exalted chorus of famous admirers, including Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and Freud. No other single piece of literature has generated more research, analysis, commentary, interpretations or adaptations than his Divine Comedy.
Why? “Dante’s genius is that he can find and create poetry in everything,” Roberto Benigni, a passionate Dantista, told me in an interview years ago. “He doesn’t say you should avoid evil in life—which is impossible—but you should confront it every day, because in that struggle every single human being has the potential of becoming something magnificent, a wonder of the universe.”
No wonder Dante’s words still reach our ears and touch our souls more than seven centuries after they were written.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. You can download her most recent book, “A” Is for Amore, for free at diannehales.com.