The stars of the night

Dante Alighieri: from the stars of his birth to the origin of his name

The Supreme Poet between the constellation of his birth and the history of his full name

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.

date, divina commedia, paradise

💡 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.

Dante and the Gemini constellation

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):

O glorious stars, O light full of great virtue

Of great virtue, by which I recognise

Of great virtue, by which I recognise

Of great virtue, by which I recognise

Of great virtue, by which I recognise

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:

Gemini is the house of Mercury, which is the signifier, according to the astrologers, of writing and science and knowledge, and so disposes those born under its ascendant, and even more so when the Sun is there.

💡 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.

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).

monument of Dante Alighieri in Florence

Dante and the roots of his name

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 family group.
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.

Florence, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Piazza del Duomo ovest (11th-12th cent.).

💡 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:

O gentle spirit, O true Dante
To us mortals the fruit of life,
Giving it to thee the high infinite goodness,
as a fitting and worthy means [...].

💡 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:

[...]; this was that Dante, who was the first to open the way for the return of the Muses, banished from Italy. For him the clarity of the Florentine idiom has been demonstrated; for him every beauty of vulgar speech is regulated by the right numbers; for him the dead poet can be said to have been deservedly aroused: these things, when duly observed, will be demonstrated by no other name than Dante, who could have been worthy of being called Dante.

By Vincenzo Canto
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