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An Italian Icon

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, one of the most important Italian poets and philosophers of all time

Sep 14, 2021

As famous as he ever was, even after 700 years: Italy’s national poet Dante Alighieri is depicted here in a painting by Sandro Botticelli.

As famous as he ever was, even after 700 years: Italy’s national poet Dante Alighieri is depicted here in a painting by Sandro Botticelli.
Image Credit: Wikipedia

In Inferno, a novel by the American author Dan Brown, all that protagonists Robert Landon and Sienna Brooks have to rely on to avert disaster is an illustration depicting a strange, funnel-shaped, multi-tiered construction. The best-seller makes frequent reference to the poet Dante Alighieri; in fact, this “Map of Hell” by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli, which leads the pair through the historic center of Florence, is based on Dante’s description of hell in his epic poem the Inferno.

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the writer and philosopher’s death. “Dante’s works are still heavily referenced in literature and the fine arts today,” says Professor Bernhard Huß from Freie Universität Berlin. The professor of Italian and French literature at the Center for Italian Studies organized a lecture series in cooperation with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Berlin this summer semester on Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Ahead of His Time: Dante’s Case for the Separation of Church and State 

While Dante, born in Florence in 1265, is best known for his poetry, he also addressed political issues in his work. In his treatise De Monarchia libri tres from 1317, he grapples with the relationship between secular authority and religious authority. “Dante called for a clear separation between church and state institutions, which is a very modern perspective,” says Professor Huß.

The intense political debates of his time surrounding the conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope had a marked effect on the writer’s own life. Dante was banished from Florence in 1302 for his opposition to papal influence and traveled throughout central and northern Italy, eventually dying in the town of Ravenna in 1321. 

He addresses these experiences in the Divine Comedy, as Huß explains: “The inspiration for the poem came from his own profound sense of disorientation. He had lost his way in life and was looking for a way through it.” It is primarily his religious convictions and reflections that help the protagonist to navigate through his confusion. The epic poem ends with Dante joining God in Paradise, whereupon he returns to Earth to write the Divine Comedy. According to Huß, he achieves this thanks to a strong moral impetus, coming to terms with ethical and moral concepts and creating a system of values by which he judges those around him.

Professor Huß notes that Dante’s search for knowledge is more relevant than ever: “We have never had as many opportunities as we do now. But this can also be overwhelming.” Dante’s descriptions of hell and paradise provoke us to rethink our own ideas of good and evil, as well as reflect on the issue of social responsibility. The professor of Italian and French literature believes that societies will focus on values and morals in future discussions, adding: “The pandemic has laid bare many of the social inequalities that had previously been concealed from us.” 

Dante is still seen as a powerful force in literature. The language used in the Divine Comedy is distinctive due to its precision, as well as the striking use of highly varied linguistic registers that range from lofty, to coarse, to outright indecent. Dante’s ability to blend complex intellectual and theological questions with his characteristic poetic style was one of a kind, and this catapulted him to the pantheon of truly great authors. Huß says that he is considered one of the founding fathers of European literature: “Dante contributed to the development of narrative literature in the post-classical age with the Commedia. European love poetry was also heavily influenced by his work.” 

The Italian poet was particularly well regarded in Germany in the nineteenth century, with the Romantics seeing him as an artistic genius who didn’t adhere to the dominant literary rules in his poetry, but instead found inspiration in the depths of his own perception. The enthusiasm for Dante’s poetry in Germany was accompanied by an interest in him as an intellectual figure, most clearly demonstrated by the foundation of the German Dante Society in 1865, which is the world’s oldest international academic association dedicated to the life and legacy of the writer. 

Every School Student in Italy Reads Dante 

Today, Dante is seen as an icon with a particularly special place in Italian society, especially for his work regarding language. In his essay De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), he discusses different languages that were commonplace in Italy at that time, and compares them to Latin, the dominant scholarly language of the Middle Ages. He is now considered one of the most important contributors to the standardization and promotion of Italian as a vernacular and literary language.  

Historical circumstances have also meant that the poet’s work has been repeatedly appropriated for political purposes since his death. For example, Dante’s work was used to consolidate nationalist ideas in the nineteenth century when Italy was beginning to develop into a nation state. The nationalization of Dante manifests itself today in portraits in which he is dressed in Italy’s national colors of green, white, and red, and publicly broadcast readings of his work.  

Professor Huß says that it is difficult for people from Germany to comprehend this degree of reverence for an author, even though major literary figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who played a significant role in shaping German culture, also exist here.

“Is Dante to Italy what Goethe is to Germany? Well, yes and no,” says Huß. Both are seen as national poets of their respective countries, but in Germany we developed a nuanced and somewhat skeptical approach to our literary canon after 1968. He continues, “Every schoolchild in Italy must read a work by Dante at some stage of their education, and every Italian high school graduate is familiar with the Divine Comedy. However, things have changed in Germany. Students might still read Goethe’s Faust in their literature class today, but it is no longer compulsory. It is difficult to imagine adopting such a distanced attitude to a national poet in Italy, and our attitude to an author like Goethe frequently baffles Italians.” 

This text originally appeared in German on July 3, 2021, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität Berlin.The translation has been slightly modified to reflect the current date of publication.

Further Information

Related Events

International Dante Conference – Alma Dante 2021, Ravenna (Italy), September 15–18, 2021. https://eventi.unibo.it/almadante-ravenna-2021

  • Professor Huß will be attending the round table on Dante studies around the world and presenting on stoicism in Dante's works.