Dante's bust
04-11-2021

Dante Alighieri: anecdotes and legends about the Supreme Poet

Memorable facts and sayings about an unpublished Dante Alighieri

Alongside the rich manuscript and critical tradition linked to the name of Dante, there is another equally copious one of a strictly anecdotal nature, which undoubtedly has the merit of contributing in the first place to increasing the already considerable importance of the figure of the Florentine Supreme Poet.

There are many personalities, both well-known and less well-known, who over the centuries have nurtured what in the words of Dante scholar Giuseppe Lando Passerini (1858-1932) can be defined as a «legend in the making», such is the depth not only of the cultural but also the human - in the broadest sense - character of Dante. However, one should not be too fascinated by the narrative vivacity of these pens of the past, most often animated by an extreme pleasure of storytelling oriented not to the transmission of objective and truthful data but to the most exquisite research of curious and fictional details, intended to arouse surprise and therefore interest in the reader or listener.

Many of the events attributed to Dante's life and work have in fact, over the years, been greatly re-dimensioned and confined to their - more probably correct - status of apocrypha: either for reasons of contextual unreliability (e.g. due to chronological inconsistencies), or because they are close to the absurdity typical of the reveries of the vulgar, or - as occurs above all for anecdotes linked to famous historical figures of the time - because they are older than Dante's time and are from time to time attributed to illustrious men (and therefore not original elements but rather reused).

It is thanks to the reading and circulation of this information that it is possible to understand what the image of Dante was in popular perception, how well known he was to the masses, what appreciation he enjoyed and what degree of importance he held. And it will certainly be noted how little or nothing the shadow of oblivion fell on the memory of the "Ghibellin fuggiasco" during the time span that has elapsed so far.

detail from Saint Jerome by Antonello da Messina

Boccaccio's peacock and other prodigies

One of the most famous and closest admirers of Dante's genius was Boccaccio, who devoted much of his scholarly interest and sensitivity as a fine literary critic to the work of the Florentine, without even neglecting the prestigious undertaking of writing an authoritative biography of the Poet (known by the title Trattatello in laude di Dante) in which, However, he does not seem to be able to contain his own vein as a professional storyteller, punctuating his writings with brief digressions that bear witness to exceptional episodes, out of the ordinary, demonstrating Dante's distinctive otherness.

Leaving aside the author's main intention of amplifying the echo of Dante's poetic talent by making it an innate dowry of celestial origin (considering the divine perception that the medievals had of oneiric visions), Boccaccio in this case does nothing more than insert himself into the very rich tradition of premonitory dreams and mothers foretelling the greatness of their children with which both ancient and medieval literature abound.

💡 Did you know? The Commedia also contains similar oneiric-prophetic episodes. In Paradise XII (vv. 58-60, 64-66), the Poet tells of the premonition that St Dominic's mother had in a dream (she dreamt of a black and white dog with a torch in its jaws which it used to set the world on fire, a reference to the colours of the Dominican habit and the ardour for goodness that distinguished the order's mission) and of his godmother (who appeared to him with a star on her forehead to announce her role in guiding peoples to salvation).

In the last chapters of the Trattatello (XXVI, 183-189), Boccaccio again refers to the "admirable vision" that Dante's son - Jacopo - had of his father in the eighth month after his death: when the Poet died, the last thirteen cantos of Paradise were not found, to the point that many despaired and did not miss an opportunity to invite his offspring (Piero too "was a rhyming speaker", although to a lesser extent than his brother) to complete his father's masterpiece, it happened that one night the young Jacopo was confronted by his parent's ghost "dressed in candid clothes and with an unused light shining in his face"; He asked him if he had succeeded in completing the Comedy before his death and, when the ghost answered in the affirmative, he followed him to his bedroom where, on his father's instructions, he found the much-desired papers hidden in "a little window never seen by any of them before, nor known to be there", already victims of mould.

The 'extraordinary' nature that Dante demonstrated on these occasions helped his fame so much that he was immediately associated with magical qualities in his actions and words. According to Franco Sacchetti (1335-1400), the fourteenth-century Ferrara rhymer Antonio Beccari (1315-1373), having lost at the game, apparently decided to offer two candles taken from in front of a crucifix at Dante's tomb in Ravenna, recommending himself to him by virtue of the recognition he showed towards the greatness of the Poet. It is also said that the Florentine's declamations were very well attended, at least until he was punished by God for having attributed to himself the faculties at his disposal, seeing his mind confused in front of his listeners.

Dante: a 'vulgar' Florentine

While such an excess of arrogance might be at odds with Dante's focus on the exercise of moral virtue, it might be possible to discern a kernel of truth behind the information about his character and behaviour in the various circumstances of his daily life.

On this aspect, narrators and biographers do not spare the slightest indiscretion in divulging the bitterly stubborn nature of the Poet, who was also renowned for not being a model of patience and forbearance. A detail in which some, like Sacchetti, trace one of the reasons for his subsequent condemnation to exile.

It is precisely this last one that informs us of Dante's heated reactions against those who dared to mispronounce his verses by reciting them with little fidelity and in unsuitable ways, punishing the infringement even by resorting to strong-arm tactics: this is what happened with the donkey-worker who, "singing Dante's book [...] when he had sung a piece, touched the donkey and said Arri: Arri", received "a great thrashing on his shoulders" from Our Lord for those deliberate additions of his that were completely foreign to the original; or with the blacksmith, whose unwelcome interpretation of his rhymes the Poet took to throwing his tools in the street, admonishing him not to spoil his only art.

💡 Did you know? The fact that even blacksmiths and donkeys declaimed Dante's compositions shows that he was already well known among the common people, but the 'book' often referred to cannot be the Commedia, since the author - at least as far as the stories reported are concerned - was still in the context of the Florentine municipality. It is more probable, instead, that Dante's texts, known today under the general label of Rime, were circulating and being published as they were composed.

statue of Dante in Naples

From the works of Dante...

The largely fanciful testimonial tradition on Alighieri has not even stayed away from touching a typically sharp question such as that of an author's literary production. And from this point of view, Dante the poet and theorist has been literally dismembered and recomposed, through operations of addition and subtraction, in the most extravagant documentary reconstructions.

As a result, Fiorentino was deprived of the paternity of the Convivio, assigned to his son Jacopo, or of the De vulgari eloquentia, which for a certain period of time passed through the pen of Torquato Tasso, until the declaration of the writing by an unknown person of Canto XI of the Inferno (on the sin of usury), to whom we owe the responsibility for the structuring of the first canticle into 34 parts, contrary to what happens in the other two later canticles.

No less singular are the improper attributions: the verses on the death of Emperor Arrigo VII, by the hand of poets such as Sennuccio del Bene (1275-1349) and Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336), passed to that of Dante, as did the funeral inscription to the same despite the fact that it was written almost two centuries after the event; and there are those who speak of a treatise on the nature of fish that Dante is said to have compiled immersed in the peace of the landscape of the river Tolmina (today Tolminka, in Slovenia, 12 km from the Italian valley of the Isonzo). Without forgetting, according to Rosa Errera (1864-1946), that for some he was even "an authentic German, German in name and features, wit and ideality", a forerunner of modern scientific discoveries, a Freemason and socialist, a precursor of Luther.

What has been summarised in this regard certainly only returns a part of that luxuriant 'harvest' of oddities among which scholars have had the duty to disentangle themselves in order to bring to light as much truth as possible about Dante. And if some authorial questions are now more or less established (the reference goes to the two early poems Il Fiore and Detto d'amore, thanks above all to the work of the philologist and Dante scholar Gianfranco Contini - 1912-1990), others still remain firmly in the shackles of doubt. This is the case of the so-called Credo in terze rime.

In this regard, there is a short story set against the backdrop of Ravenna, where Dante, welcomed by the local lord Guido Novello da Polenta, found shelter until the day he died. Already known to all 'for his book' (the Commedia), however (the Commedia), nevertheless "many people did not understand him, and said that he was a wanderer of faith". So one day, in a church in the city, "a wise Friar Minor, [... inquisitor" came to the Poet - driven by the same convictions of the many readers of the incriminated work - to reprimand him, inviting him to abandon the composition of "songs, and sonnets and phrases" which could lead him to damnation ("they could give one day what you would serve") and to try his hand at writing "a book of grammar" following the dictates of the Church, then concluding the conversation with the promise of a future meeting in which the accused Dante would have to demonstrate his sincerity of faith and support what he had declared in the poem ("It is not time now; but we shall be together on such a day, and I will want to see these things"). When the meeting was over and Dante returned to his room, he set to work on "that chapter called the little Creed, which Creed is the affirmation of all the faith of Christ". Presenting the text "to the said day [...], who was to find the aforementioned inquisitor" and submitting it to the latter's careful examination, "Dante then departed from him and went safe and sound": on reading those verses the friar noted that they were "remarkable things" and his confusion was such that he did not know what to say in reply, but his admiration for that mind so rich that he wanted to become his friend.

💡 Did you know? According to the more accurate version provided by Rosa Errera, compared to the one reported in Paget Toynbee's essay, the Credo was composed by Dante in one night to defend himself against the accusations that the Franciscans made against him after reading how severely the Poet had blamed the corruption of the order (in Paradiso XII).

Dante and Doré's loin in canto I

Dante in exile: a restless pilgrim

Finally, among the 'stories' about the Supreme Poet, the most poetic and picturesque remain those relating to his travels during the years of exile from Florence, for which he "appeared everywhere on our mountains and along our seas" (Errera) - and on the other hand it was Dante himself who declared that he had been "to almost all the parts to which this language extends" (Cn I III 4).

One of these is particularly valuable for the presence of some important details concerning the genesis of the masterpiece of the Comedy. The source, whose veracity is nevertheless debated, is a letter from a certain Friar Ilaro to the Ghibelline leader and captain of fortune Uguccione della Faggiola (1250-1319), to whom he reported the visit to the monastery of the Pulsanti monks of Santa Croce del Corvo, between Monte Caprione and the mouth of the Magra (in the Tuscan-Ligurian area), by a pilgrim who turned out to be precisely the Dante whose literary fame had reached him. Having touched "that land to go beyond the mountains" in search of peace, the Florentine, after a verbal conversation with the aforementioned friar, "having taken a booklet from his breast, offered it to the monk for his memory": The volume in question contained verses from Dante's famous poem, at the reading of which "Ilaro, [...], expressed [...] his amazement that such sublime thoughts could have been expressed in the language of the vulgar", a wonder to which the author "replied that he had indeed thought at first of writing in Latin; but then, considering the conditions of the present age, he had preferred modern usage in order to be understood". The letter concludes with the friar referring to the Poet's invitation to him to send the work delivered to him to Uguccione (to whom the canticle of the Inferno would be reserved), adding that the second part of the letter was addressed to the Marquis and friend of Dante Moroello Malaspina (1268-1315), while the third to the Aragonese king of Sicily Federico III (1272-1337).

Leaving aside the certain or dubious authenticity of the testimony, the information about Our Lord's original choice to initially compose the Comedy in Latin is significant: Looking, in this regard, at the promise (at the end of the Vita Nuova) of the creation of a 'paradisiac poem' in honour of the celestial Beatrice, one could hypothesise that the idea of a wider poetic composition in Latin was part of the intention to address the learned and to show them what the new love poetry consisted of, that "stylus of praise" of which he had already proposed himself as his first cantor in his youthful book.

By Vincenzo Canto
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