Thursday, June 1, 2017

Born Today June 1: Dante Alighieri


Famed late Medieval Italian poet Dante degli Alighieri was probably, or even possibly, born on this date in the Republic of Florence's seat of power Florence proper (now the capital of the Tuscany region of Italy). Another common date for his birth is given as May 22.  A lot of calculations about his age come from deductions found in his Divine Comedy (one can follow links below for more on the subject).  Alighieri was born into minor aristocracy, and he himself, claimed direct decent from ancient Rome.  His family was aligned with a political coalition that backed the Pope, and were opposed to the group that backed the Holy Roman Emperor.  This would have profound influence both in the events of Dante's life, but also on how he ultimately came to view the world.  He was known to have fought with the Guelph cavalry in the Battle of Campaldino which took place on the 11th of June in 1289, the Guelphs won.  This occasioned a change in the Florentine constitution and that included a stipulation that if one wanted to participate in public life, you had to register with a guild.  Dante enrolled in the Physicians and Apothecaries Guild.  What is known about Alighieri's education for certain is that he studied Tuscan poetry and possibly, in a broader sense rhetoric and grammar as was the tradition of the day.  He openly admired various other Italian poets of the age.  He coined as new phrase and style of both expression and writing called the dulce stil novo (sweet new style) and would later explore the concept with other writers when he was in his 20's.  By 1290 he was studying ancient Roman philosophy and later religious studies along Dominican lines--this was one of the lines that led to public political statements on his part that would later result in his exile.  The Guelph line that he was born into split into  two faction after the Battle of Campaldino--White and Black, with Dante siding with the White faction, largely along family lines.  Their differences lie in how much of a role the Papal state would have upon Florentine affairs.  The Black fation favored direct Papal rule, while the White faction favored more independence in Florence.  The White faction was first to seize power in Florence and promptly expelled the Black faction, this led directly to a planned papal military occupation of the state by Pope Boniface VIII.  Various events played to the point a Florentine delegation had to be sent to Rome to ascertain the intentions of the Pope.  Dante was among them.  A harsh trick was then played on the writer, with the Pope dismissing all of the White Guelph delegates except Dante, thus essentially holding him at The Vatican.  While it was presented as a "request" by the Pope, he knew he dare not say no it.  Back in Florence, the Pope then sent in Charles of Valois, brother of the King of France, along with a large number of Black Guelph's to basically sack the place.  They installed a Black Guelph leader, and Florence basically became a puppet state.  Instead of exiling the White faction--as the that faction had done with the Black, the Black Guelphs simply killed a large number of them.  On what was clearly a trumped up charge, the new leader accused Dante of public corruption while serving for a time as Florence's city prior for a mere two months in 1300 (the office was the highest public position in the land at the time).  Because Dante remained in Rome, he was considered to have "absconded."  He was fined, if he wanted to return, he must pay.  He basically could not do this because: 1. his assets had been seized, and 2. he considered himself wholly innocent of the charge.  Under the circumstances if he had returned, he could have been burned at the stake (as a side note: it took until 2008 for the city council in Florence to officially rescind his sentence!).  After dealing with the treachery of the Black faction and growing sick biting infighting amongst the White faction, Dante wanted to be left to his own devices.  Not a whole lot is known for sure about the following period of his life, but he appears to have become a wanderer of sorts, with the real possibility that he spent some time in Paris during the period.  Some even claim that he visited Oxford, but these sources appear to highly questionable.  In fact, there is not one single shred of real evidence that he ever left the Italian peninsula.  Out of politics and left to contemplate on his own, his thinking became honed and his writing became fluid and frequent.  It was during this time of his life and exile that he had the idea of the Comedy in a 3 book form (as in The Holy Trinity).  This poetic tome is the only reason that he is known outside of his corner of Italy today.  What makes the work so remarkable for it's time is the language that it is written in.  Almost all poetry of the time, except the lowest forms of verse, was written in Latin, considered the proper language of poetry.  Dante, however, wrote the Divine Comedy in Italian instead.  The work follows Dante's travels first through Hell--Inferno, then through Purgatory--Puratorio, and finally to Heaven or Paradise--Paradiso.  Along the way he encounters a great many people well known to the world at large; from Virgil to very personal people in Dante's life with a special place in Hell set aside for Popes who committed the sin of gaining financially from their office.  Although Dante did write other important works, almost none of them are popular outside of the realm of studies of Italian poetry of the late Middle Ages.  Certainly when it comes to films, The Divine Comedy is the only work that matters.  The very first film to use the work in a film came in the Italian short Il purgatorio in 1911--oddly (by today's standards anyway) not The Inferno, the middle Purgatory poem, was chosen.  However, two other films of from The Divine Comedy were also made in 1911, and they were both based on the inferno.  The first was short Dante's Inferno (1911-I).  The next is one the most important surviving versions of his work from the silent era, the first is that for is length--well over an hour--it was the first feature length film to be shown entirely in one sitting, it is equally as important a work as being one of the earliest surviving horror films as well.  Dante's Inferno (1911-II) was a first on many other levels as well; it was the very first feature lenth film to be in a wide release (spanning at least two continents); and it was absolutely the first film to show full frontal male nudity!  It would not be until 1925 that another important silent film of his work was released; Maciste In Hell remains the other incredibly important silent film of his work to this day (both films have also had modern bands compose their own scores for the films:  Tangerine Dream for Dante's Inferno (1911-II) and Gojira for Maciste).  In all, 7 films were made of Alighieri's work in the silent era (with Maciste being the last).  The first sound film made from the work came from Fox Studios in 1935 with, you guessed it, Dante's Inferno.  His work was first produced exclusively for television in 1974 with the Hungarian made-for-TV film Pokol--Inferno.  The latest released film of his work dates from 2013 with the animated short Dante's Hell Animated.  Technically, there are 4 films in the works, but one of them is a closely cut trilogy in Inferno By Dante is set for release this year, with Purgatory By Dante and Paradise By Dante slated for release next year.  As for Dante himself, he had barely finished Paradiso, when he accepted an invitation to stay in Ravenna, which was then part of the Papal State proper, in 1318.  While there, he accepted an invitation to travel as a diplomat to Venice in 1321, he died on his way back to Ravenna from there.  It is thought the mostly cause of death was Malaria that he contracted in Venice.  He was buried in Ravenna at the Church of San Pier Maggiore.  The most common date of death is given as the 14th of September.  He was 56 years old. 

Exterior of the tomb built in 1870


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