What was Dante's sign of the zodiac and how did he, as a man of the
Middle Ages, experience his relationship with the stars? And the
origin of his name, a simple paternal attribution or a prophetic
omen of future virtues? Who is Dante, once he has put down the
laurel wreath? There has always been a lot of talk about the most
famous Italian literary figure in the world, but almost always in
relation to his greatest masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, with
the result that the profile of the 'person' has gradually been
reduced in favour of that of the 'poet'.
In the knowledge that an author's biography always constitutes the fundamental basis for a careful reading of the author, the invitation made here - as on future occasions intended to celebrate the seven hundredth anniversary of Dante's death, which falls this year - is to look "under the veil" and get to know some little-known aspects of the Supreme Poet.
💡 Did you know? The expression "sotto 'l velame" (under the veil) is a quotation from Inferno IX, v. 63, and refers to the "mystery" under which is hidden "the doctrine", the truth that Dante is about to reveal.
As a great observer and singer of the heavens, Dante always loved -
and his words testify to this - contemplating the vault of heaven, but
he reserved particular devotion to a constellation that was very dear
to him throughout his life: Gemini. He was born in its sign, in
the second half of May 1265, and from every place in his life - from
his native Florence to the Ravenna of his exile and death - he enjoyed
admiring it shining from the west, especially in its triumph of winter
light when it appears most visible.
To it and its stars Dante will say he is eternally indebted, in the ancient consciousness for which "The sky your movements begin" (Pg XVI, 73). And, not by chance, he will turn to them, invoking their helpwhen - having entered the Heaven of the Fixed Stars (Pd XXII, 112-114) - he asks for his own soul to "acquire virtue" so that it will be able to face the "strong step that pulls it to itself", that is the most difficult part of the entire journey that he will have to describe (the rose of the blessed, the angelic hierarchies, God):
What does the virtuous gift of Gemini consist of? The anonymous fourteenth-century author of the Ottimo commentary on the Divine Comedy outlines it very well:
💡 Did you know? The Commentary on the Divine Comedy, which has come down to us in various editions, all of which date from around 1330-1340, is the first commentary in Florentine on the entire Comedy. The anonymous author had met Dante and discussed the poem with him.
Ingenuity and talent therefore belong to the offspring of these
fortunate stars. And the more Dante excels in study and reading, the
more he attaches importance to the astral inheritance with which he
has been honoured, especially if behind its influence is hidden the
goodness of God who confers motion on those same stars.
But with the presence of God, the sense of sinning is heightened, even more so if the era is medieval. So the poet, fearing to err by letting his intellect run wild without the safe guidance guaranteed by virtue - if it is true that every great gift brings with it significant duties - puts a brake on himself by always ensuring that the 'gift' is used with propriety and under authoritative favours.
Gustave Doré, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, Paradiso XXVI.
An exemplary case can be found in the Commedia, when it is St Peter, after his heated denunciation of the corruption of his successor popes, who entrusts Dante - with his implicit blessing - with the task of opening "the mouth, / and do not ascend what I do not ascend" (Pd XXVII, 65-66), and precisely in the light of the constellation to which he had appealed just a few Cantos earlier.
💡 Did you know? St Peter is one of the three holy apostles who subjects Dante - once he has arrived in the eighth heaven - to a theological examination, questioning him on the faith; the other two are James and John and he will be examined by them on hope and charity (PD, XXIV-XXVI).
According to the ancient custom of 'marking' children with the name of
their fathers, and with that of their fathers, Dante's full name would
be that of
Durante di Alighiero di Bellincione di Alighiero di Cacciaguida.At least until, as was already
happening at the time of the poet, the
names of the lineages were fixed to indicate the various members of a
This is what happened with what later became Dante's 'surname', Alighiero (from the archaic form of Alagherio, but Boccaccio speaks of a corruption of the original Aldighieri>), introduced by the woman taken as wife by his ancestor Cacciaguida to whom "in one [son], as women are wont to do, it pleased her to revive the name of her past" (Boccaccio, Treatise in praise of Dante > , II, 15), thus integrating it into the nominal uses of the family. The same applies to the poet's proper name given to him by his mother Bella, who belonged to the Abati family, where it was very common (in the double form of Dante and Durante).
Dante and Durante: one the diminutive of the other and both very common in Florence, even if the reduced version prevailed in the city (as confirmed by the 15th-century chronicler Filippo Villani) which often ended up acquiring the value of an actual name.
This is what happened to our Lord: baptised, like all Florentines, in the small temple of San Giovanni as Durante, he was then - and still is today - called Dante. And he himself never failed to contribute to this use, always signing his name as such in his poetic correspondence (as in one of his sonnets in response to which the first verse reads: "Io Dante a te, che m'hai così chiamato"), in his works (in canto XXX of the Purgatorio Beatrice, in admonishing him, calls him 'Dante') and on other occasions (the notarial acts drawn up during his life).
Baptistery of San Giovanni (11th-12th cent.), Piazza del Duomo ovest, Florence.
💡 Did you know The east door of the Baptistery is the famous Door of Paradise, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1425 and 1452. The original, however, was moved to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo after being restored following damage caused by the 1966 flood.
As his fame and the recognition of his genius grew, Dante's constant
use of his own diminutive was given a meaning, imitating the
interest cultivated by the author himself for that
consequentiality between names and things that he recalled in
The new fife (XIII, 4) and taken up by the Istitutiones of the
Emperor Justinian ("Nomina sunt consequentia rerum").
Among the most widely shared is the one centred on the reading of the name Dante as the present participle of the verb 'to give', so that Dante would literally be 'the one who gives'. And many of his contemporary and later admirers expressed their views on his qualities as a 'giver', such as the Neapolitan diplomat Guglielmo Maramauro, who composed a sonnet on the subject that opens as follows:
💡 Did you know? Guglielmo Maramauro (or Maramaldo, 1317-?) was a member of the knightly order of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, served as a diplomat under the Angevin court of Joan I of Naples and was appointed Senator of Rome by Pope Urban VI.
Boccaccio was no less important. In the aforementioned Treatise, at the end of Chapter II, he introduces the figure of the poet and presents him to the reader as the one "who was granted a special grace by God to our century" of which he readily makes a gift in turn, making himself the author of many noble undertakings that could not be achieved by anyone other than a man, a genius, bearer of such an eloquent name: