Dante Alighieri and the Italian Language

Jul 15, 2015 by

My recent trip to Italy has taken me to several places associated with the country’s leading cultural hero—Dante Alighieri. I have visited Florence, where he was born and spent his early years, and Verona, where he stayed for some time at the courts of Bartolomeo I and Cangrande I, Veronese rulers from the Scaligeri family. Dante’s recognizable aquiline nose and piercing gaze can be faced in several memorials and statues in both cities (see images below), and elsewhere in Italy. Although Dante’s memorial at the Santa Croce Church in Florence (see third image from the left) looks like a tomb, Dante is actually buried in Ravenna, where he spent the last years of his life. The Florentines ultimately came to regret Dante’s exile and made repeated requests for the return of his remains, but the custodians of the body in Ravenna refused. The evocative memorial at the Santa Croce Church shows Dante weary of his exile, while the Muse of Poetry (on the right) mourns and the Lady Florence (on the left) seems to point at Dante as if to say “Look what we missed out on”.

© 2004 -- Ron Reznick http://www.digital-images.net [#Beginning of Shooting Data Section] Nikon D2H Focal Length: 85mm Optimize Image:  Color Mode: Mode II (Adobe RGB) Noise Reduction: OFF 2004/10/28 06:23:00.6 Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority White Balance: Color Temp. (6300 K)  Tone Comp: Less Contrast RAW (12-bit)  Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern AF Mode: AF-C Hue Adjustment: 0° Image Size:  Large (2464 x 1632) 1/320 sec - F/5.6 Flash Sync Mode: Not Attached Saturation:  Exposure Comp.: -0.3 EV Sharpening: Normal Lens: 85mm F/1.4 D Sensitivity: ISO 200 Image Comment:                                      [#End of Shooting Data Section]

© 2004 — Ron Reznick 

Dante_tomb verona_dante
Statue of Dante at the Uffizi Museum, Florence
Statue of Dante at the Santa Croce Church, Florence
Dante Memorial in Santa Croce Church, Florence
Statue of Dante in Verona


It was hard to avoid running into all things Dante, especially as Italy celebrates the 750th anniversary of his birth. (His exact birth date is not know for sure, but based on autobiographic allusions in the Divine Comedy, it is thought to be some time between mid-May to mid-June of 1265 CE.) Even the national railway company’s magazine, La Freccia, features a two-page spread on Dante in its July issue, written by a professor of history of the Italian language from the Università Sapienza di Roma Luca Serianni. It was quite remarkable seeing terms like “nouns”, “possessive adjectives”, and “connotation” in such a publication; I doubt that, say, an airline magazine in this country would ever publish a piece on Shakespeare and the English language with similar linguistic terminology in it.

The article highlights the role of Dante as “the progenitor of the modern [Italian] vocabulary”; in reference to the work of linguist Tullio De Mauro, it is claimed that at the beginning of 1300s, 60% of the essential vocabulary of Italian—“the two thousand words without which we couldn’t manage in today’s everyday life”—had already been part of the language. But by the end of that century, Dante left us with the lexicon that already included 90% of the essential vocabulary of the modern language. The opening lines of the Divine Comedy, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura”, are comprehensible to modern Italian readers.

But it does not mean that the language of the Italian Peninsula has not changed in the nearly seven centuries since Dante’s death. As Serianni notes, some words in the Divine Comedy are obscure to modern readers: for example, ramogna in Purgatorio, XI: 25 — does it mean ‘hope’, ‘purification’, or something else perhaps? Other words have changed their meaning: for instance, Virgil’s parenti in Inferno I: 68 are ‘parents’ rather than ‘progenitors’ (its meaning in modern Italian). (Confusingly for English speakers, in modern Italian the word for ‘parents’ is genitori.) Some other words merely lost their peculiar poetic connotation. Thus, in Purgatorio, XXVII:109 splendori antelucani ‘pre-dawn splendors’ referred to the light that spreads immediately before dawn; today, antelucano can be used in everyday contexts such as Oggi sono dovuto uscire ad ore antelucane ‘Today I had to go out in the hours before dawn’. Serianni also notes the curious evolution of the expression dalla cintola in su (from Inferno X:33, literally ‘from the waist up’), which together with a parallel expression dalla cintola in giù (lit. ‘from the waist down’) has become part of the special soccer terminology: dalla cintola in su refers from midfield to forward players, whereas dalla cintola in giù refers from midfield to defense.

Among other differences between “the language of Alighieri and the Italian of today”, Serianni notes the grammatical change that involves the use of possessive adjectives such as nostra (see the opening lines cited above). In the Divine Comedy, one finds expressions like di nostra vita, where a simple preposition (di ‘of’) is used in front of a possessive adjective (nostra ‘our’); in modern Italian, such possessive adjectives normally appear with a definite article, or in this case with an “articled preposition”: della nostra vita literally ‘of.the our life’.

Yet despite Dante’s indelible mark on the language, “la lingua dell’Alighieri” (‘Alighieri’s language’) remained for over five centuries “in suspended animation”. Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was handed down in more than 800 manuscripts and often committed to memory by its readers, popularized the Florentine vernacular in areas far away from Tuscany, making it the form of language that all educated Italians could understand. Because of the Divine Comedy’s prominence in the Italian cultural legacy, Tuscan regional dialect later became the basis for the creation of a unified literary standard language, during the days of Rissorgimento, or Italian unification. Yet Dante himself neither fashioned a literary standard nor advocated its broad use. More than most early Italian writers, Dante was aware of the variety of Italian dialects and although he called the language of the Divine Comedy “Italian”, it was clearly based on his “home” regional dialect. But publishing a work of such a scope in a local vernacular rather than Latin was important in another way: Dante thus showed this “Italian” vernacular to be a suitable medium for epic and philosophical works, thus breaking with the Latin-only tradition—soon to be followed by Giovanni Boccaccio in Italy, and by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower in England. It took later authors as Niccolò Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei to make Italian the language of political philosophy and science. (Curiously, Galileo Galilei’s earlier works such as his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610 were first published in Latin.)

As for modern standard Italian, its first literary expression is considered to be I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a novel by Alessandro Manzoni, who described his language in the Preface to the 1840 edition as the Milanese dialect “rinsed in the waters of the Arno” (river in Florence). The unification of Italy in the 1860s brought together a large number of civil servants and soldiers from all over the Peninsula, who introduced many of their local words and expressions (including ciao, which comes from the Venetian dialect). Although only 2.5% of Italians could speak the standardized language in 1861 (as noted in the Wikipedia article), today virtually every Italian learns it at school though many people still speak a local dialect at home.

In short, the role of Dante was not in writing an explicit description of “Italian” (such as a dictionary or a grammar) nor in actively advocating its broad use, but in creating a beautiful literary model on which a standard literary language could later be based. This means that a description I overheard from an Israeli tour guide in Verona, likening Dante to Ben-Yehuda, whose dictionary (and propaganda!) of modern Hebrew played a vital role in its “revival”, is rather less than fitting. Perhaps a better parallel would be with Judah Halevi, regarded by many as the greatest medieval Hebrew poet (though it should be noted that Halevi predated Dante by about 200 years).

As for links between Dante’s Italian and the Hebrew language, in an interesting twist, some of the earliest translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy were into Hebrew (most notably by his contemporary, a Jewish scholar and poet Immanuel of Rome) and Judeo-Italian; the latter was published by a Jewish printer at Naples in 1477. On the links between Dante’s writings and those of various Jewish scholars, see also this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: